Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Leveson: Judge's prescription to cure the industry's ills proves a hard pill to swallow for wary media

Lord Justice Leveson with a copy of his report

Reaction to the Leveson Report was swift, widespread and somewhat predictable.

Politicians, campaigners and media executives were divided over Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations for reform of the Press, much as they were before the inquiry.

Campaign group Hacked Off, which has represented some of those complaining of unwarranted Press intrusion, said proposals for regulation supported by legislation were “proportionate” and called for them to be implemented quickly.

But industry figures and civil liberties campaigners warned against backing up any new regulatory body in law.

Lord Hunt, head of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), said: “Above all it is absolutely key that the result is a new regulator with effective sanctions and teeth, and independent from the industry and from the Government.

“I have to say, however, that I am not convinced statutory regulation including supervision of Press regulation by Ofcom would have prevented the horrors of the past.

“What will prevent them happening again is getting the Press to sign up to a fresh start and a serious improvement in governance and culture.”

Tom Mockridge, News International chief executive officer, said: “We are keen to play our full part, with others in our industry, in creating a new body that commands the confidence of the public.

“We believe that this can be achieved without statutory regulation — and welcome the Prime Minister's rejection of that proposal.

“We accept that a new system should be independent, have a standards code, a means of resolving disputes, the power to demand prominent apologies and the ability to levy heavy fines.”

In a statement, Hacked Off said the judge had “rightly condemned the outrageous conduct” of the Press over recent years.

It added: “The crucial point is the importance he places on the complete independence of regulation from politicians and from the editors and proprietors who run the wholly discredited PCC.

“He has proposed a system of voluntary and independent self-regulation. The proposals made by the industry do not come close to this ideal. What is needed is a regulator which can properly and effectively protect the victims of Press misconduct.

“He has recommended that this be backed by legislation to protect the public and the Press.

“These proposals are reasonable and proportionate and we call on all parties to get together to implement them as soon as possible.”

Former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, who successfully sued the News of the World for privacy damages over claims that he was involved in a “sick Nazi orgy”, said it would be “astonishing” if the Government did not implement Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations.

Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “If Parliament votes on the Press, the Press isn't free. To split hairs between statutory underpinning and statutory regulation is not an acceptable distinction in a free and democratic country.”

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, warned that detailed statutory underpinning of regulation could be dangerous.

He told Sky News: “What you can't have is too much detail in any kind of statutory underpinning, that's where the danger lies.

“Most politicians, once you give them a little nose into something, will try to find a very much wider thing down the line.

“We might have benign politicians now, but 10 years' time? That's the problem.”

Carl Bernstein, one of the investigative journalists who broke the Watergate scandal, said the British Press was right to resist legislation.

He said there were already enough laws in the UK to put journalists who hacked phones in jail.

“The answer is find the proper way to put them in jail for the horrible offences that they are guilty of, not to try and restrain free speech, freedom of the Press.”

SDLP MP Mark Durkan was the lone voice of local reaction.

Mr Durkan said: “Some of the pre-emptive hysteria we have had from some Press sources in the past couple of weeks doesn’t give much assurance that all sections of the Press show compelling self-restraint or respect to their legitimate position of influence.”

Q&A

Q Why was the Leveson Inquiry set up?

A The Prime Minister set up the public, judge-led inquiry to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media. It came about after the public outcry over the News of the World phone hacking scandal, particularly the revelation that the newspaper had hacked into voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Q So what did Lord Leveson examine?

A Essentially, he looked at the relationship the Press had with the public, police and politicians. He also examined controversial Press methods, such as the use of phone hacking and took evidence from hacking victims, including famous faces such as Hugh Grant and Charlotte Church, members of the public, such as Milly Dowler’s mother, police, journalists, newspaper owners and politicians.

Q What were his impressions of the Press?

A Not great. He accused it of acting as though its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and it “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.

Q So you would expect Leveson to be tough in his recommendations?

A Indeed. There are many, but the main one is for a new self-regulatory body to be backed by legislation. It would have the power to demand prominent apologies and impose fines of as much as £1m. Statutory regulator Ofcom would be tasked with ensuring it complies with the law.

Q What’s the difference between the proposed body and the Press Complaints Commission?

A Aside from the laws underpinning the new body, the board would mainly be composed of members from outside the Press, and serving editors and MPs would not sit on it. The PCC is voluntary and self-regulating, is made up of representatives of the major publishers and has no legal powers.

Q Why is this |controversial?

A The UK has a long tradition of an independent and free Press without State regulation dating back three centuries. Many fear that handing politicians any power over the Press is anti-democratic and would compromise its ability to hold the powerful to account.

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