Judge urges independent regulator for British press
While the independence of the British press must be protected, a powerful self-regulatory system must be created to protect the public’s rights, Lord Justice Leveson has said. Otherwise, he added, there would be growing demands for state-run regulation.
Such a regulator would be able to investigate on its initiative, arbitrate settlements between newspapers and complainants, issue fines of up to £1 million for breaches of a toughened code (depending on the size of the publication), and order the publication of apologies and corrections. However, it would not have the power to prevent publication.
The judge denied he was seeking to impose state regulation, but said legislation was necessary to underpin the regulatory body’s existence, and to make it easier for newspapers abiding by the new code to fight off libel cases.
“The press, operating freely and in the public interest, is one of the true safeguards of our democracy. As a result, it holds a privileged and powerful place in our society,” he said.
‘Serves country well’
Emphasising that he did not believe that the press “should be delivered into the arms of the state”, Lord Justice Leveson said the “British press – all of it – serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time”.
Legislation was needed but only to enshrine the government’s duty to protect the freedom of the press, to recognise the new regulatory body and to reassure the public that standards would be set high and would be kept.
Lord Justice Leveson said Ofcom – the independent regulator for the UK communications industries – should be the judge of whether the new regulator meets “basic requirements of independence and effectiveness”.
The regulatory body’s members would be chosen by an expert panel with a “substantial majority who are demonstrably independent of the press” but would include at least one insider and and no more than one serving editor.
The regulatory body itself would have a majority of non-press members with a “sufficient number” of ex-editors, senior journalists and academics with detailed knowledge of the industry. Serving editors and members of the government would be barred from the body. Those newspapers that refused to sign up could face day-to-day regulation by Ofcom, the judge suggested, although he did not make that a formal recommendation.
Drawing inspiration from the Irish Press Council, Lord Justice Leveson said retired judges should be used to arbitrate on complaints, “striking out unmeritorious claims and quickly resolving the others”, as an alternative to litigation.
A newspaper that refused to take part could be deemed to have denied a complainant access to “a quick, fair, low-cost arbitration” and, as a result, face penal, exemplary damages, and pay all costs, even if it won the case.
Wealthy individuals who threaten newspapers with a libel action could be punished by not getting their costs – even had they won their case – if they did not take part in the regulator’s arbitration system first.
On the role of the press in protecting democracy, the judge said that in recent years at times there had been “significant and reckless disregard for accuracy” in major news stories. “This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship, and also on occasion wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary people.
“What the press do and say is no ordinary exercise of free speech.”
Apologies and corrections have been offered too slowly. “A general defensive approach has led to some newspapers resorting to high-volume, extremely personal attacks on those who challenge them; it is not enough simply to disagree.”
The regulatory body should be properly funded by the industry, with guarantees about its budget for up to five years in advance. And it should be free for the public to lodge complaints.
The judge said he had not “unearthed extensive evidence of police corruption”, or that there was “a widespread problem” caused by the day-to-day relations between police and reporters. However, he called for matters to be put on a more formal footing, with logs kept of all contact between senior officers and reporters and of “off-the-record” briefings – the stock in trade of most crime reporting.