Cameron rules out government role

Thu, Nov 29, 2012, 00:00

British prime minister David Cameron has said the government should be "wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press".

Mr Cameron was speaking in the House of Commons following the publication of the Leveson inquiry report today, which has called for significantly tougher independent regulation of the British press, but ruled out any role for the British government.

Membership of the new body would be voluntary for British newspapers, but they would enjoy some greater protections in libel actions if they accept it, Lord Justice Leveson declared.

Legislation will be needed, but only to enshrine government's duty to protect the freedom of the press, to recognise the new regulatory body and to reassure the public that standards will be set high and kept - not to regulate the press.

However, newspapers that refuse to sign up to be regulated by the new body could face regulation instead by Ofcom, the statutory regulator that governs UK television stations, he warned.

Legal recognition of the new body's arbitration system would validate its standards code and offer legal protection on data protection issues and other issues.

The body should be properly funded by the industry, with guarantees about its budget for up to five years ahead, while it should be free for members of the public to lodge complaints with it.

It would not have the power to prevent publication, but it would have the authority to impose fines of up to £1m depending on the turnover of the organisation, and to order apologies and corrections to be published.

An independent panel, with just one current serving editor, should appoint the the new regulatory process after an open, transparent interview process is held.

While it would have to include people experienced in the media, this body would not include any serving editor - compared to the seven who sit now on the Press Complaints Commission. Nor should it include any serving MPs

"By far the best option would be for all publishers to choose to sign up to a satisfactory self-regulatory regime and, in order, to persuade them to do so, convincing incentives are required," he wrote.

An arbitration system staffed by retired judges could cheaply deal with many of the complaints against the press “striking out unmeritorious claims and quickly resolving the others”.

If a newspaper refused to be covered by the new regulatory body then a court would be able to rule that it had deprived a complainant of access to 'a quick, fair low-cost arbitration.

"(It) could permit the court to deprive that publishers of its costs of litigation in privacy, defamation and other media cases, even if it had been successful. After all, its success could have been achieved far more cheaply for everyone," he wrote.

Furthermore, if a non-regulated paper is found to have breached a complainant's civil law rights then it could be considered to have 'shown wilful disregard of standards and therefore potentially lead to a claim for exemplary damages'

"I believe that these proposals in relation to costs should provide a powerful incentive for all publishers to want to be a part of such a self-regulatory system," he said.

However, the threat of legal costs should also work the other way around: "If an extremely wealthy claimant wished to force a newspaper publisher that was a member of the regulatory body into litigation (in the hope that the financial risk would compel settlement) it would be open to the publisher to argue that having provided a recognised low-cost arbitral route, that claimant, even if successful, should be deprived of costs, simply because there was another, reasonable and cheap route to justice which could have been allowed."

The incentives are necessary, argued Lord Justice Leveson, to encourage the British press 'to be willing to become part of what would be genuinely independent regulation'.

Legislation would have to be passed to give this legal effect, but this has nothing to do with the statutory regulation of the press: "The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria.

"The legislation would not give any rights to parliament, to the government, or to any regulatory (or other body) to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever," he went on.

However, the legislation would enshrine for the first time in British law 'a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press', along with laying down a process for recognising the new independent regulator.

"Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised, as statutory regulation of the press.

"What is being proposed here is independent regulation of the press, organised by the press with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met.

Newspapers who refuse sign up for his proposed new body could face regulation instead by Ofcom, the regulator which currently rules on standards in the TV industry.

"It would be a great pity if last-ditch resistance to the case for a measure of genuine independence in oversight of standards of behaviour of the press, or the intransigence of a few resulted in the imposition of a system which everyone has said they do not want and which, in all probability, very few others would actually want to see in place," he declared.

Meanwhile, Lord Justice Leveson said there “was no credible of bias” by former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt - now serving in Health - in his handling of Rupert Murdoch's bid for control of all BSkyB.

However, his contact with one of Murdoch's lobbyists, Fred Michel “gave rise to the perception of bias”, while the fact that the contacts happened without records being kept “were an additional cause of concern”.

The judge said he doubted 'the wisdom' of appointing his special adviser, Adam Smith to such an influential role given his experience and the sensitivity of the issue.

Senior police officers should be required to list every one of their contacts with journalists, while lower-rank officers should speak only on issues where they have been cleared to do so.

The new body would continue to issue notices to newspapers - as already happens with the PCC - where subjects of press attention complain about press intrusion.

Fines paid to it should be put into a ring-fenced fund to pay for future investigations, while the new body would have power to intervene in “cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting”.

Mr Cameron said Lord Justice Leveson’s report did not “find a basis for challenging the integrity of the police”, but had found “a number of areas for concern”.

Mr Cameron said he supported Leveson’s recommendations for ending the “cosy relationship” between the press and the police.

Mr Cameron said the Government accepted a recommendation for the publication of further details of the “overall level of interaction” between ministers and the media.

The premier said former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt had endured “a stream of allegations with great dignity” over his handling of the BSkyB bid, and the report confirmed that “we were right to stand by him”.

Mr Cameron said he agreed with Leveson that current press industry proposals for a new regulation system “do not yet go far enough”.

Mr Cameron said he accepted Leveson’s principles for regulation, and that the onus was now on the press “to implement them, and implement them radically”.

The prime minister said he had “serious concerns and misgivings” over Leveson’s proposals for a statutory underpinning to a new regulation system.

But he added: “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press.”

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