current affairs

Analysis: To regulate the press, or not regulate the press?

After months of investigating the phone hacking scandal and the behaviour of the British newspapers, Lord Justice Leveson released a nearly two thousand page report examining his recommendations on

After months of investigating the phone hacking scandal and the behaviour of the British newspapers, Lord Justice Leveson released a nearly two thousand page report examining his recommendations on the future of the press. This is the seventh time in nearly seven decades that the press had been examined in a Parliamentary inquiry, and the most concentrated of the inquiries.

Leveson began by saying British journalism continued to demonstrate strength in a unique media age. “I do not doubt that, at its best, British journalism is and has historically been world-beating: it has uncovered scandal, reported on significant events, and campaigned on issues of importance with both decency and integrity,” Leveson wrote. “Furthermore, it has been made very clear during the course of this Inquiry that journalism of the highest quality is not restricted only to a certain section of the press but is to be found across its many distinct and different parts: not only in the broadsheets but also in the mid-market titles and the tabloids along with the regional and local press, both in print and now also in their online editions.”

Yet, the report said the behaviour of the press was “outrageous” and the effects of the phone hacking and the ethics surrounding it “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people,” according to a report from the BBC. “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist,” Leveson said in his House of Commons statement according to a report from the Guardian. “This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained.”

Additionally, Leveson wrote that the press had failed to self-regulate itself in the past and as a result, a new regulator (which would replace the Press Complaints Commission that is currently in place) must be in place with the legislation to back it, the BBC report added. The legislator would, however, remain independent from government and ban Parliament from interfering in the content published in the papers.

Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern over making statutory interference known in the press. “It would mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land,” Cameron said in his Commons statement according to the Guardian. “We should think very, very carefully before crossing this line. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg disagreed, the report added, saying that the regulation was necessary to ensure the oversight of the press. “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,” Clegg said in his Commons statement according to The Guardian.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband also disagreed with the view of Cameron. In an interview with The Observer, Miliband said the press’ history of self-regulation had failed. “Why does it need to be guaranteed by law? Because we have had 70 years, seven separate attempts, a history of self-regulation that has failed,” Miliband said. “I think that Leveson has come up with an ingenious and good solution. You have self-regulation, but you have somebody who is a guarantor that it is adequate self-regulation based on principles of independence.”

Indeed, some members of Cameron’s party disagreed with him. In an interview with BBC Radio Wales, the MP for Cardiff North, Jonathan Evans, said the law to impose media regulation was not a bad thing. “I was disappointed by what the prime minister said initially,” Evans said. “We need to have a debate about it. My inclination is that the concerns about statutory underpinning are being over done by ministers. The proposals put forward by Lord Leveson are really quite modest. They are not really the leap in favour of statutory regulation that some people thought we might end up with.”

Yet, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, in an interview with the BBC’s Breakfast programme, said the legislation was not needed. “Our concern is that we simply don’t need to have that legislation to achieve the end of objectives and in drafting out this piece of legislation what we are going to be demonstrating is that it wouldn’t be a simple two-clause bill,” Miller said. “At this point what we should be focusing in on is the fact that the gauntlet has been thrown down to the industry. The press industry need to be coming back with their response to the Leveson report. Their response to how they’re going to put in place a self-regulatory body that adheres to the Leveson principles and that is what I want to see moving forward swiftly.”

Across newspaper editorials the day after the publication of the report, opposition against regulation was conveyed. “While there may be merit in a grand bargain that trades the incentives to participate for some measure of statutory underpinning, the idea of handing oversight power to Ofcom is wrong-headed,” the editorial in the Financial Times read. “Ofcom is charged with regulating television broadcasters that have a legal obligation to impartiality. It reports directly to government. This is a step down the road towards state licensing of a press that, of course, has no obligation to provide balance.”

The Daily Telegraph said that Leveson would not know how the bill that would require the legislation would be drafted and the form it takes once it was formed in the Commons. “We do not doubt that he is anxious to avoid state control of the press; and he maintained at his news conference, where he took no questions, that it would be ‘unfair’ to characterise what he was proposing as statutory regulation,” the editorial read. “But this is either sophistry or naivety on the judge’s part, since he has no idea what a Bill to underpin a new independent regulatory framework would look like when it emerged from Parliament. How would it be drafted? How would the incentives and penalties for publications be framed? Could a definition of the public interest be bolted on? In other words, what is to stop MPs amending it now and in the future so that it no longer resembles the benign legislative vehicle envisaged by the judge?”

The Guardian said while laws may be necessary, there were reasons to be concerned moving forward. “While statutory underpinning may be necessary to achieve the carrots and sticks needed to make the system work, there are reasons to be nervous about what’s in the proposed statute,” the editorial read. “Setting out statutory criteria by which Ofcom or another certifying body would assess the regulator could have unintended consequences. Ofcom’s view of what constitutes an appropriate code of standards, for example, might allow for mission creep. The statute would have to stay at a high level and prevent Ofcom taking artistic licence. If Leveson’s doomsday scenario comes true and major publishers choose to stay out of any self-regulatory body, he recommends that Ofcom becomes the direct backstop regulator for that publisher.”

The government’s press law currently being considered would validate the new self-regulating body and require the government to ensure the protection of the press, but would ban Parliament from interfering with the content of newspapers and establish a regulator that would directly oversee the press, according to a BBC report.

At the end of the day, the key question which remains is this—will the regulation be in place, or will regulation not go ahead? Ahead of a meeting of newspaper editors with Cameron on Tuesday the 4th, there are still many differences within the coalition government with regard to the issue of regulation, leading into a political debate on what it would become. Meanwhile, consumers of the press and those who were victims of the phone hacking scandal want to see that a repeat of the phone hacking scandal is avoided, and that the press continues what it is supposed to do—inform, engage, and hold to account, and remain a vital part of the British democracy.

As Lord Justice Leveson said in the concluding remarks of the report’s executive summary: “I expect my recommendations to be treated in exactly the same cross-party spirit which led to the setting up of this Inquiry. The ball is now in the court of the politicians.”

A series on the future of British journalism after Leveson will be seen on the pages of Kettle starting this month and going into the new year.

What do you think of the proposals from Lord Justice Leveson? Should there be a new regulator? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook and on Twitter.