Inquiry: ‘Reckless’ UK press needs new regulator

The UK government must legislate to establish a new press “self-regulation” body — independent of both publishers and politicians but overseen by media regulator Ofcom — because newspapers have “wreaked havoc” in the lives of innocents, says the nine-month inquiry report in to the culture, practice and ethics of the business.

Lord Justice Leveson, who has been hearing issues including the “hacking” of mobile phones for news stories, said the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC), comprised of newspaper editors, is “not actually a regulator at all”. And he has rejected news publishers’ alternative suggestion of binding themselves to ethical standards by commercial contracts.

Instead, he is advising the government to legislate the creation of a new independent body to promote “high standards” and safeguard individuals’ rights, run by a chair and a board who will hold publishers to a code.

Leveson is leaving the definition of that code and the implementation of the new body to whomever Prime Minister David Cameron, should he follow the recommendation, might appoint to set them up. But Leveson suggests the code should outline what constitutes “public interest” – a thorny topic on which newspapers and others often disagree.

The Lord Justice says publishers will be incentivised to adhere to this code because it will create an alternative dispute arbitration forum that will be cheaper than court battles — if publishers lost against a complainant in court, they would face heftier damages awards than in arbitration.

Whether this is enough of an incentive if unclear — after all, news publishers have operated in what Leveson called a “reckless” manner with the threat of hefty court fines up until this point.

Newspaper industry campaigners had worried that Leveson’s report, if it required legislation, would amount to state interference in newsgathering. They had highlighted United States citizens’ right to free speech under their First Amendment. But Leveson says:

“This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down.

“The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever.

“Nor would it give any rights to these entities to require newspapers to publish any material except insofar as it would require the recognised self-regulatory body to have the power to direct the placement and prominence of corrections and apologies in respect of information found, by that body, to require them.”

That definition of the body’s role sounds somewhat akin to that of the existing Press Complaints Commission, which is now discredited. But Leveson also says: “(The legislation) would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.”

But the new body must be recognised by Ofcom, the existing and powerful regulator of UK radio spectrum, telecommunications infrastructure and broadcasting standards — and Leveson suggests Ofcom be used as a “backstop” regulator for publishers that refuse to join the new scheme.

Leveson said: “For the seventh time in less than 70 years, there is a new report commissioned by the government dealing with concerns about the press. The PCC has failed in the task — if, indeed, it ever saw itself as having such a task — of keeping the press to its responsibilities to the public. There must be change.”

In sum, the Leveson Inquiry report amounts to a stern telling off for British newspapers, sets the basic colour and ideas for a slightly enhanced regulatory body but leaves all of the next steps to government — a process that is likely to be mired in ongoing political wrangling.

Update: Prime Minister David Cameron says he agrees with much of the recommendations but not the need to create the new body through state legislation:

“For the first time, we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.

“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.

“In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”