25 Nov 2012

Leveson: why I support tighter regulation of the press

Ahead of the Leveson report on Thursday, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi tells Channel 4 News why an independent regulator is needed to hold the press to account.

When I was asked to sit on the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions my gut instinct was to oppose any form of statute-backed press regulation, writes Nadhim Zahawi MP. But having listened to the evidence it’s clear to me that self-regulation in its current form does not work.

I am not worried about the way the press treats politicians or celebrities. They’re big and ugly enough to look after themselves. My concern is with people like the Dowlers, the McCanns, Christopher Jeffries, or the Hillsborough families – people who have been grievously failed by a culture of impunity at the top.

Many editors and proprietors argue that new regulation is unnecessary because the worst abuses examined by Leveson already incur legal penalties. But this overlooks an important point: not everyone has the means to take legal action against a major media company for defamation or breach of privacy. The cost of obtaining an interim privacy injunction is between £15,000 and £25,000 it can cost hundreds of thousands more to take a privacy case to full trial. Defamation cases are notoriously expensive, not least for the defending newspaper. Surely it’s in everyone’s interest to have a system of redress which keeps disputes away from the courts?

Read more: A day on the stand at the Leveson inquiry

PCC ‘ineffective’

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was not equipped for this task. It lacked teeth because it did not have powers to properly investigate or punish breaches of the editorial code; it lacked credibility because it was not seen to be independent of the press. When News International claimed that phone-hacking was the work of ‘one rogue reporter’ the PCC were too quick to take them at their word.

The real debate is about whether we continue with a system of self-regulation which has patently failed, or whether we bring in an independent regulator which the public can trust.

There have been valuable suggestions from the industry itself about how we deal with the first of these problems. Lord Hunt and Lord Black have proposed a new regulator with enforceable powers to view documents and call witnesses during an investigation, as well as the ability to levy fines in cases of serious wrongdoing. Lord Hunt has also suggested the creation of an arbitration body, with a role similar to that of the financial ombudsman, to hear complaints and arbitrate in disputes free of charge.

I am fully in favour of these measures, but we need to look at the problem of credibility too.

Independence crucial

To command public confidence the PCC’s successor must also be independent, both from politicians and the press. The best way to guarantee that independence is to write it into law through some form of statutory underpinning. Some have suggested that this would amount to state control of the press, but if that’s the case then why do these same people place so much faith in the courts to deal fairly with media malpractice? After all, the independence of the judiciary is also guaranteed by statute.

There are many ways we could go about structuring this independent regulator, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Clearly it’s vital that it exists at arm’s length from government. One suggestion we came across on the joint committee was to give a statutory body overall responsibility for press regulation, but to leave the day-to-day running to a self-regulating body. This would be similar to the relationship between Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Public interest defence

For me, one of the key tasks of an independent regulator would be to establish a more credible public interest defence for the press. A public interest test which could be applied independently and consistently would carry more weight in law than it has under the PCC. This would help strengthen press freedom by keeping serious investigative journalism out of the courts, while delivering greater protection for the public.

Independent regulation will not prevent every scandal, as the BBC well knows. But it can help foster a culture of responsibility which makes it harder for bad behaviour to go unchallenged. When the McAlpine scandal struck the BBC’s response was swift, the man at the top lost his job and an investigation was launched. News International had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts before we heard so much as an apology.

Editors and proprietors have presented this debate as a grand battle between state censorship on the one hand and the hard-won liberties of Fleet Street on the other. The public are not fooled.

The real debate is about whether we continue with a system of self-regulation which has patently failed, or whether we bring in an independent regulator which the public can trust to do its job.

I await Lord Leveson’s conclusions with interest.