Leveson inquiry concludes press must be regulated by law, but David Cameron expresses concern over recommendations
Newspapers in Britain have been guilty of years of malpractice that “wrecked havoc on the lives in innocent people” and must ultimately be regulated by law to prevent further wrongdoing, Lord Justice Leveson’s landmark inquiry concluded yesterday.
But hours after delivering his report and calling for the first press laws since the 17th century, Lord Justice Leveson's hopes that his proposals would receive broad support were crushed.
David Cameron warned he had "principled and practical" concerns about "crossing the Rubicon" and legislating to control the press, while the Labour leader Ed Miliband insisted Parliament should "put its faith" in all Leveson's recommendations.
In an unprecedented split in the Coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, also backed legislation, arguing that press laws were needed to ensure any new regulator "isn't just independent for a few months".
Months of difficult negotiations and lobbying now lie ahead which will pit parts of the press against the victims Leveson found they had harassed.
Last night, Mr Cameron's allies suggested he would defy the Commons even if, as expected, it votes in favour of the new law to underpin independent regulation. He is unlikely to drop his opposition to a statutory approach even if MPs vote in favour of one, they said.
Among Lord Leveson's main findings in his 1,987-page report were:
- Unethical practices by the press extended far beyond the News of the World and went on for many years. Editors at a number of newspapers "talked and joked" about phone hacking but did nothing to stop it while unwanted intrusion and surveillance of celebrities was commonplace.
- Newspapers "recklessly" prioritised sensational stories, irrespective of the harm they could cause to those affected and "heedless" of the public interest.
- Meanwhile, proprietors, and in particular Rupert Murdoch, paid scant attention to regulating the activities of their newspapers which often "intimidated" or took "retribution against complainants or critics".
But the report was much kinder to politicians who courted the press, concluding there was no evidence they were unduly influenced by the need to gain press support. In particular, Leveson cleared the Government of being unduly influenced by News International in its decision over the BSkyB takeover - a finding criticised by political opponents. Leveson said there was "no credible evidence of actual bias" on the part of the former Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, in deciding on the takeover.
Leveson disputed Rupert Murdoch's testimony that he did not try to influence politicians, pointedly remarking: "He must have been aware of how he was being perceived; to suggest otherwise would be to suggest Mr Murdoch knows little about human nature and lacks basic insight, which could not, of course, be further from the truth."
Leveson admitted that the section of his report on phone hacking and the culture at News International that led to it was limited given on-going court actions and will ultimately be the subject of a second inquiry.
He did not criticise the Metropolitan Police for its initial response to phone-hacking allegations against Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, accepting that in the aftermath of the 7/7 terrorist attacks they were under "enormous pressure". But he concluded that when further evidence of phone hacking came to light the force failed in its duty to take the allegations seriously.
The report also criticised James Murdoch, when he was in charge of News International, for failing to investigate phone hacking.
Significant parts of the Leveson Report deal with his proposals for a new form of press regulation to replace the discredited Press Complaints Commission. He rejected industry proposals for a more limited form of independent regulation and suggested:
- Creating a new press regulator independent of both the industry and Government with the power to fine newspapers up to one per cent of turnover up to Â£1m for "serious or systematic" breaches of the standards code. It would also have the power to direct the nature and placement of apologies.
- Newspapers would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but if they chose not to take part they would face paying all the legal costs of any court action against them for defamation or privacy. However, publications that signed up could be exempt from legal costs if they could prove that they offered arbitration to the complainant.
"This is not statutory regulation of the press," he insisted. "I am proposing independent regulation of the press, organised by the press itself."
However, just hours later in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron appeared to disagree, warning MPs that Parliament should be "wary" of passing legislation to regulate the press.
"I have some serious concerns about this recommendation," he said. "For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. "
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, disagreed, arguing that without statutory underpinning "there cannot be the change we need".
He was backed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who split with Mr Cameron to back regulation. Victims groups welcomed and backed Leveson's recommendations but expressed anger at Mr Cameron's refusal not to endorse them in full.
Christopher Jefferies, the former teacher whose arrest over the murder of Joanna Yeates sparked a tabloid frenzy, said: "I think he is very much mistaken. The Prime Minister leaves himself open to the accusation what he is doing is simply, as too many Prime Ministers have done in the past, bowing to illegitimate pressure from a body which does not want to have its power curtailed in any shape or form."
Solicitor Mark Lewis, who represents the family of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, said Mr Cameron had failed the victims of phone hacking: "Cautious optimism lasted for about 45 minutes and then the Prime Minister spoke and said he is not going to implement a report he instigated."
Professor Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off, which represents hacking victims, said: "Lord Leveson has... given the Prime Minister a workable, proportionate and reasonable solution to the problems of press abuse. The Prime Minister has not done his job." There was also some criticism from within the inquiry team itself. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties group Liberty - who served as an assessor - said her organisation was unable to back the last-resort alternative of compulsory statutory regulation. She said it was "too high a price in a free society".
The Leveson Report: Key points
*David Cameron rejected the central recommendation of Lord Justice Leveson’s report: that a new press watchdog independent of MPs and newspapers must be backed by new press laws.
*The legislation, as recommended by Leveson, would enshrine a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.
*The new watchdog, which would replace the Press Complaints Commission, should be able to levy fines on offending newspapers of up to £1m and have the power to direct the “nature, extent and placement of apologies” in newspapers. Leveson rejected the print industry’s own proposals for regulation.
*The watchdog would create an arbitration system enabling victims of the press to seek redress without the cost of legal action.
*Newspapers that refuse to join the new body could face direct regulation by Ofcom.
*The recommendations split the Coalition. Nick Clegg made clear he is firmly in favour of new legislation. Ed Miliband endorsed the Leveson Report in its “entirety”.
*Leveson criticised the Cabinet Minister Jeremy Hunt and former Scotland Yard officer John Yates.
*Victims of media intrusion broadly welcomed the report. Hugh Grant said he hoped it would “mark the start of a new era for our press”.
Cameron prepares to defy Commons as he raises serious objections over Leveson's regulation plans
David Cameron will defy the House of Commons if, as expected, it votes in favour of the new law to underpin independent regulation of the press recommended by Lord Justice Leveson.
Allies of the Prime Minister made clear he was unlikely to drop his opposition to a statutory approach even if a majority of MPs vote in favour of one. Labour will force a Commons vote on the Leveson Report by the end of January.
The prospect of an embarrassing defeat increased when, in an inprecedented move, Nick Clegg made his own Commons statement backing a legislative approach immediately after Mr Cameron had opposed this key Leveson proposal.
With Labour and more than 70 Conservative MPs backing Lord Justice Leveson’s call for a system of press regulation backed by statute, Mr Cameron appears to be heading for a Commons defeat. He may allow Tory MPs a free vote in an attempt to take some of the heat out of the backbench rebellion against his position.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Mr Cameron would “take account” of Parliament’s view. Privately, aides said a vote in favour of the Leveson blueprint would “not be binding”, adding: “Labour does not have the power to bring in legislation.”
Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and Ed Miliband began all-party talks on the Leveson Report at a 30-minute meeting. The Prime Minister said he had not entirely ruled out legislation. He agreed that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport would draft a Bill to implement Leveson - which he hopes might persuade Mr Clegg to drop his support for the Inquiry’s recommendations.
A Downing Street source said after the talks: “The PM’s position has not moved an inch. He has deep misgivings about statutory regulation. The exercise of drawing up a Bill will demonstrate how complicated it would be to introduce press laws. We have done some similar work over the past few weeks to look at what clauses might look like, and they always end up being more complicated and far reaching than first thought.”
Labour and the Conservatives accused each other of “political posturing” over the report. A Labour source said: “We have the prospect of the Prime Minister ignoring the judge he appointed and the will of Parliament. If he is so determined to stay in favour with the sections of the press that caused the problem, that is his choice, but it won’t look good.”
Although Mr Clegg’s mind is not closed, he is unlikely to change his view that Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals are “proportionate and workable”.
Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were conciliatory in the way they handled the Coalition’s most visible split since its formation. The die was already cast when the Coalition Committee of ministers from both parties met in the Cabinet Room this morning. Although the discussion was good-natured, there was no attempt to reach a compromise. Mr Clegg had already decided that, with all-party talks looming, it was right for him to set out his different position to Mr Cameron in public.
In his Commons statement, Mr Cameron argued that the Government should think very carefully before it “crossed the Rubicon” by creating the first press law for hundreds of years, about which he had “serious concerns and misgivings”. He added: “The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians, whether today or some time in the future, to impose regulation and obligations on the press.”
The Prime Minister insisted he endorsed Lord Justice Leveson’s key aims for an independent regulator for the press, but believed they could be introduced without statutory backing. He said the status quo was not an option. But he criticised Labour for rushing to support all the Leveson proposals, warning that watering down the protection given to newspapers under the Data Protection Act could inhibit investigative journalism.
Admitting his Commons statement was “unusual,” Mr Clegg told MPs: “Changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn’t just independent for a few months or years but is independent for good.” He described the Leveson plan as “a voluntary system based on incentives with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation.”
Mr Miliband endorsed the full Leveson proposals as “measured, reasonable and proportionate”, and said legislation should be enacted in the Parliamentary session starting next May. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make change the public can trust. There can be no more last chance saloons,” he said.