Britain’s press has “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” for decades, Justice Lord Leveson has reported after a year-long inquiry which now sets the stage for one of the biggest press shake-ups in British history.
The Leveson inquiry, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of the News International phone hacking scandal, delivered its mammoth 1,957 page report on Thursday in which Justice LordáLeveson, reserving scathing criticism for some in the press, recommended a new press regulatory body which, controversially, should be backed by a change in the law.
What Did the Leveson Inquiry Find?
To briefly sum up the reports findings, Leveson said there was evidence that there had been wide-scale abuses against the public in a press culture that had failed to regulate itself and felt itself beyond censure.
This, the report says, has been compounded by the fact that the public, unless they have the financial means to challenge the press in court, have little remedy for press abuses.áLeveson also found that when complaints were brought against the press, there was often a culture whereby the press would seek retribution against those who had challenged them.
With regards to phone hacking specifically, Leveson found that the unethical practice extended far beyond the News of the World, and had been going on for many years.
Leveson noted that editors had prioritized sensational stories without regard to their wider impact, and said that newspaper owners, including the Murdoch empire, had failed to regulate the activities of their newspapers.
Leveson also found that there existed uncomfortably close relationships between the media and senior members of the police and politicians.
However, Leveson cleared several cabinet members of the Conservative-led government who had been accused of improper relationships with the press and a lack of impartiality when it came to the Murdoch-backed BSkyB takeover bid.
Leveson’s Recommendations to Reform the Press
In order to remedy these problems, and to boil down the intricate proposal to its bare bones, Leveson said there was a need for a new self-regulating body that would be set up and manned by independent persons not connected with serving editors, government officials or businesses.
The new independent body would be elective, that is to say the press could choose whether or not they submitted themselves to its regulation, but if they failed to do so they would then be subject to legal suits that, until now, they had been shielded from.
The regulator would have the power to fine newspapers up to one percent of turnover up to ú1 million should it be found there was a “serious or systematic” breach of the standards code. The regulator would also be able to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies, ensuring for the first time that the press could not hide away its wrongdoing.
Leveson called for legislation to underpin and recognize the new regulatory body, saying, “I am proposing independent regulation of the press, organised by the press, itself with a statutory process to itself promote press freedom, provide stability and guarantee for the public that this new body is independent or effective.”
The British Government Reacts to Leverson
The requirement for legislation to back the new regulatory body has caused a split in the presiding Conservative-Lib Dem government, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that broadly he agrees with Leveson’s findings but, like many of his backbenchers and cabinet members, that he is against creating legislation. Cameron, delivering his statement to the House of Commons just a few hours after the publication of the Leveson report, said:
The issue of principle is that 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.
On the grounds of practicality, no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would I believe become more complicated.
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, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
Mr Cameron went on to say that he was not convinced that it was in fact necessary to underpin the new body with legislation.
However, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that in most cases he backed Leveson’s proposals and, in absence of an alternative to legislation, saw the need for swift and robust action:
I understand the entirely legitimate reasons why some members of this House are wary of using legislation. I have thought long and hard about this. I’m a liberal, I don’t make laws for the sake of it – and certainly not when it comes to the press. Indeed, when I gave my own evidence to the Inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all of the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should.
What is more, 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. Someone will need to check, periodically, that the independence of the regulator hasn’t been weakened over time. The report explains why that needs to be set out in law.
And, as Lord Justice Leveson himself says: “this is not and cannot be characterised as statutory regulation of the press. This is a voluntary system, based on incentives, with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation.”
Clegg’s words were echoed by the Labour opposition who also called for swift action.
At the time of writing, the Coalition is said to be busy preparing the legislation that would give legal recognition to the new body; the Conservatives are apparently doing this so as to demonstrate why the legislation isn’t workable. Labour and the Liberal Democrats appear ready to join forces in order to back the legislation.
Reform of the British press has been a topic for successive governments over the past 70 years who, until now, have failed to act.
You can find the Executive Summary of the Leveson report here.
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