Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Leveson wants to press-gang media into flawed system

Sir Brian Leveson

So, that's it. Lord Justice Leveson has done his stuff. It's an extremely comprehensive and impressive piece of research.

He has fulfilled his task and brought it in on time and, I dare say, within budget.

The problem for me is that he reaches the wrong central conclusion. Statute, whether a dab or something more, is fundamentally flawed and runs against hundreds of years of UK democratic tradition.

That's not to say that the Leveson inquiry has not had its benefits. Ethics has now moved centre-stage in journalism, which is where it should have been all along. The outrageous behaviour of certain tabloids has been exposed and halted.

Where should we go from here? I support the 'super-watchdog' approach of Lords Hunt and Black. An independent body with an investigatory arm and powers to fine up to £1m.

However, as currently constituted, I don't think it's tough enough. I would insist that serving editors do not sit on the main board and any financing board.

The danger would remain, as Sir Brian Leveson so colourfully says, that the industry would be "marking its own homework".

I would allow ex-editors to serve on it - their expertise is critical - but not anyone receiving a salary from a newspaper group, or indeed anyone who has worked for one within three years.

Leveson's belief that Ofcom should serve as the backstop legislator is also flawed. Far too much power would be invested in a body that is answerable on a weekly basis to government.

Reading deeper into the report, Lord Leveson makes recommendations about changes to the civil law that make concerning reading.

He appears to wish to increase damages for libel, breach of privacy, confidence and data protection and to ramp up aggravated and punitive damages. This would apparently be offset by the increased use of an arbitration process.

Presumably the good lord thinks this will open up remedies to the man in the street, while making serious media miscreants - ie the national tabloids - pay through the nose for their crimes.

Unless this is introduced hand-in-hand with some kind of system of mandatory arbitration, this will not happen. Lawyers acting for plaintiffs will merely use them to bludgeon newspapers.

The big national newspapers will be able to afford the new system, while regional and local newspapers will not and will be seriously affected by legal costs.

If this comes to pass, there will be courts and councils up and down the land without reporters in them, because newsroom budgets have been devastated by legal costs.

Lord Justice Leveson - and the rest of us - should beware the risk of unintended consequences.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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