Press regulation after Leveson: Key issues for the 2015 Parliament
How do we ensure that the press is both free and responsible?
In 2011, following the discovery of widespread “phone-hacking” by journalists at the News of the World and other newspapers, David Cameron set up a public inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson. The Inquiry is in two parts.
The first part, which examined the “culture, practices and ethics of the media”, produced a sizeable report in November 2012. Part 2 of the Inquiry, looking at the historic role of the police and News International, has yet to begin. The first part, which took over a year, is estimated to have cost £5.4m.
Leveson found that the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC) – the main industry regulator of the press in the UK since 1990 – was not fit for purpose.
His report recommended creating a new independent body and said that it should take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious breaches and sanction newspapers. It should be backed by legislation designed to assess whether it was doing its job properly.
The legislation would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press. An arbitration system should be created through which people who say they have been victims of the press could seek redress without having to go through the courts.
Membership of the body would be voluntary, but newspapers would be encouraged to join by allowing exemplary damages (i.e. in excess of the value of the loss sustained) to be awarded in cases brought against non-participants in the scheme. Leveson rejected the suggestion that his proposals amounted to “statutory regulation” of the press.
In response, the Prime Minister said that, while he accepted the bulk of the report's recommendations, he did not recognise the need for statutory underpinning of a press regulator. The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats called for legislative reform, and the parties engaged in cross-party discussions on the issue.
A “politicians' charter”?
The Opposition put continued pressure on the Government to legislate. Matters came to a head in March 2013. Faced with a threat to other Bills in the Government's programme, the Prime Minister withdrew from the cross-party talks.
Intense activity over one weekend resulted in a compromise acceptable to all three main parties. The compromise allowed for one or more independent self-regulatory bodies for the press to be established. Any such body would be recognised and overseen by a “Recognition Panel”.
The Panel would be established under a Royal Charter and the Charter would be protected by statute from amendment.
Reaction to the settlement was mixed. Groups such as Hacked Off, which campaigns for victims of press intrusion, welcomed the development. Major newspaper publishers rejected what they saw as a “politicians' charter”.
They responded by presenting an alternative Royal Charter, which was considered by the Privy Council ahead of the Government's own proposal, but rejected in favour of the Government version.
The press then went ahead with establishing a new regulator of their own. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was established in September 2014 following the winding up of the PCC. IPSO handles complaints, and conducts its own investigations into editorial standards and compliance.
It also undertakes monitoring work, including by requiring publications to submit annual compliance reports. IPSO has the power, where necessary, to require the publication of prominent corrections and critical adjudications, and may ultimately fine publications in cases where failings are particularly serious and systemic.
IPSO sees itself as a “regulator”, in contrast to the PCC, which was merely a “complaints-handling body”. Critics complain that it is not Leveson-compliant and that, like its predecessor, it is too close to its industry financial backers.
Over 1,400 print titles are now regulated by IPSO, including major national newspapers with the exception of the Financial Times, Guardian and Independent. It has received and investigated over 1,000 substantive complaints to date, although not all are pursued to adjudication.
IPSO is not expected to seek recognition under the Charter.
An alternative regulator?
So far, one other contender has entered the lists: the ‘Impress Project', launched in December 2013. Impress, billing itself as Leveson-compliant, says that there are three main differences between this proposed body and IPSO: it will function as an independent non-profit company receiving grants and donations from trusts, foundations and individuals; it will arbitrate civil disputes between all parties at an affordable cost; and it will involve the public closely in its work through a consultation panel.
Impress sees itself as complementing IPSO, rather than in competition with it. So far, there has been interest in Impress from the regional and “hyperlocal” press, but the new body has yet to establish a joining mechanism.
Impress has not yet decided whether to apply for recognition under the Charter.
In November 2015 the provision will come into force allowing a court to award exemplary damages against a publication which is not a member of a recognised regulator.
Will this threat persuade the press to sign up to a system many of them see as tainted? Will there even be a recognised regulator by then?
- Conservatives: will protect the role of journalists via the British Bill of Rights and ban the police from accessing journalists' phone records to identify sources without prior judicial approval.
- Greens: support the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry and the Royal Charter but will support the implementation of legislation if this is not supported by major newspapers
- Labour: will implement the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.
- Liberal Democrats: pass a “first Amendment” law to emphasise the importance of a free media