29 Nov 2012

Cameron wary of law to curb ‘reckless’ press

“Outrageous”, “reckless” and “frankly appalling”: Lord Justice Leveson delivers a damning verdict on the press. But David Cameron says he has “serious concerns” about the proposal of a new press law.

In 2,000 pages, Lord Justice Leveson gave a highly critical assessment of most British newspapers and concluded that legislation is “essential” to change the culture of the press – and to protect the individuals it reports on.

However David Cameron said that creating a new law was a step too far and that he had “serious concerns and misgivings” about it, because of the potential to “infringe free speech”.

Leveson in brief:
– Leveson calls for an independent regulator, backed up by law.
– David Cameron is against a new law; Nick Clegg supports Leveson in full.
– The tabloid press too often “wreaked havoc” with people’s lives.
– Former Culture Jeremy Hunt was not biased towards News International in the BSkyB bid, Leveson finds.
– No evidence of “widespread corruption” among the police, in relation to the press, but some “bad decisions” were made.

Lord Justice Leveson damned much of the behaviour of the press, saying “there has been significant and reckless disregard for accuracy”. In particular, he highlighted the “ordinary” people whose lives had been affected and said that the press was too often “sensational” in its reporting.

Politicians from all parties were also criticised for becoming too close to the media in the past in a manner that was “not in the public interest”.

The report rejects self-regulation by a more independent regulator alone, as proposed by Lord Black and Lord Hunt, and instead favours a new regulatory body (a revamped Press Complaints Commission) completely independent of government and industry, supported by legislation and enforced if needed by a body such as Ofcom, the broadcast regulator.

“David Cameron says the sort of neat, small law Lord Justice Leveson thinks he’s proposing could quickly expand into something much bigger.”
Read more from Political Editor Gary Gibbon>

Government divided

All of Fleet Street is opposed to any kind of legally backed press regulator. And the proposal was also rejected by the prime minister. “I have some serious concerns and misgivings about this recommendation,” he told MPs in a Commons statement. “We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg disagreed, saying that a watchdog with legal backing was both “proportionate and workable”, in an unprecedented separate speech to the Commons. Labour leader Ed Miliband also welcomed the report and said the party supported the proposal of legislative underpinning.

‘Vital’ press

In the 48-page report summary, Lord Justice Leveson said the press had served the country “very well” most of the time and that it was “vital” as a “guardian of the interests of the public”. He denied it was his role to “establish a new press standards code or to seek to be determinative”.

But said that legislation was essential to enforce a new system of regulation and boost its recognition in legal processes, adding that it would “enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press”. Turning Ofcom into a “backstop” regulator was an option should the industry prove “unable or unwilling to establish a system of independent self-regulation that meets the criteria”, Leveson said.

Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new regulatory body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.

The report also proposed a “conscience clause” in employment contracts for journalists – an idea supported by the NUJ – as well as a whistleblower hotline for journalists asked to breach their code of conduct.

‘Frankly appalling’

The most damning language of the report was reserved for the tabloids: “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. This has caused real hardship, and on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been distained.

“This is not just the famous, but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much worse by press behaviour, that at times, can only be described as outrageous.”

Lord Leveson described the treatment of the parents of Madeleine McCann as “frankly appalling”, and on Chris Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Bristol woman Joanna Yeates, he said: “Mr Jeffries was the victim of a very serious injustice, perpetrated by a significant section of the press”.

The Leveson inquiry was commissioned by David Cameron after the revelation last year that missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been illegally hacked by journalists at the News of the World. It followed a string of allegations of illegal intrusion into privacy by the paper, highlighted the extent of phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid – and the possibility of it happening at other paper.

VIDEO REACTION: Watch the latest reaction to the Leveson report

Politics and the press

On the relationship between the press and politicians over the last 30 to 35 years, the report acknowledged it had not been in the public interest. David Cameron went to “great lengths” to woo Rupert Murdoch’s News International newspaper empire prior to the last general election, said Lord Justice Leveson. He added that the prime minister’s closeness to senior NI executives like Rebekah Brooks had created a problem of “public perception”.

However he accepted there was no “deal” that newspaper support was guaranteed in return for policy favours. And in relation to accusations that former Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt had been biased towards News International in the company’s bid to increase its holding in BSkyB, he exonerated Mr Hunt, saying he was “entitled” to have strong views.

The bid was “commendably handled”, apart from the actions of Mr Hunt’s special adviser, Adam Smith, who resigned after the Leveson inquiry published emails between Mr Smith and News Corp’s professional lobbyist, Frédéric Michel.

The report concluded that the main problem is transparency, and recommended that parties lay out their policy for dealing with the media and disclosure of contacts, in order to address the “genuine and legitimate” problem of public perception.

The ‘problematic’ realm of online journalism
Online journalism, and the reporting of news on social media networks, has faced particular scrutiny in recent weeks after Lord McAlpine was wrongly name on Twitter as the perpetrator of sex abuse crimes in north Wales.

Lord Leveson acknowledged the difficulties of trying to enforce law and regulation online, saying it was “problematic”, but did little to attempt to enforce it through regulation, saying the “relative lack of internet specific regulation is unlikely to change”.

Former business secretary Lord Mandelson had previously called on the Leveson inquiry to consider the impact of the internet on newspaper regulation. While giving evidence to the inquiry, The Sun Editor Dominic Mohan called on the inquiry to ensure “a level playing field” for print and online.

John Yates’ ‘poor decisions’

In relation to the original investigation into phone hacking, Lord Justice Leveson said: “I am satisfied that I have seen no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police, or that of the senior police officers concerned”.

But in later investigations, he highlighted “poor decisions” which were “poorly executed” and refers to an “inadequate strategy” to inform victims of phone hacking. He also criticised the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Yates – who led a review of the 2006 investigation in News of the World phone hacking – for allowing a “defensive mindset” to be established by the police and for “a series of poor decisions, poorly executed”.

The approach of the police in the period 2006 to 2010 was also criticised as “insufficiently thought through…wrong, and unduly defensive”.

Press ‘needs deadline’

The Hacked Off campaign, which represents many victims of newspaper intrusion, called for the press to be given a deadline to implement the report’s recommendations. In a statement on behalf of the group, former Crimewatch presenter and police officer Jacqui Hames called the proposals “reasonable and proportionate” and we called on all parties to implement them as soon as possible. “The press must be given a deadline. The inquiry is over, now is the time for action,” she added.

Dr Des Freedman of campaign group Media Reform that the report gave a clear message that change is needed, but said he was disappointed at Mr Cameron’s response.

“The press has to be accountable, and not just to same old proprietors,” he told Channel 4 News. “Cameron shows that he’s misunderstood the root of Leveson’s argument. He’s saying that Leveson’s principles will be adopted by proprietors without legislation, which goes against what we’ve seen in practice in the press in the last 70 years.”

However civil liberties campaign group Liberty said that it could not support “any last-resort compulsory statutory press regulation – coming at too high a price in a free society”.

The head of the press complaints commission (PCC) Lord Hunt welcomed the report and said it offered a “fresh start” for the press. But added: “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.”