Irish press regulation model may be Leveson's first port of call


LONDON LETTER:The Leveson Inquiry, investigating media regulation in Britain, is increasingly looking across the Irish Sea for answers

MANY OF the seats in Court 73 in the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand in London were empty on Wednesday, but sometimes important exchanges take place when few are watching.

For months, senior media figures in Britain have railed against the prospect of State regulation of the press in the wake of the Milly Dowler/News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

They have been supported by some politicians, most loudly by the former London Times journalist and now the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, who clashed with the inquiry judge on the matter.

In their eyes, a media regulator created by a House of Commons statute threatens to hobble – at its best, and it often is, despite its current poor reputation – one of Europe’s most vigorous media sectors.

However, Judge Brian Leveson, who sometimes sighs with weariness as witnesses encourage him to add this or that to his inquiry’s reaches – is clearly looking at such at model.

His first port of call is the Irish experience since the creation in 2008 of the Press Council and Ombudsman after five years of often difficult negotiations.

On Wednesday, he gave his clearest signal yet – though it has been mentioned before – of his interest, during exchanges with the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond.

Clegg was positively effusive, describing the Irish model as “fascinating” because it offered the solution to dealing with media organisations that refuse to be covered by a regulatory body.

In Britain, the existing and much criticised Press Complaints Commission has been made much weaker by Daily Star and Express owner Richard Desmond’s refusal to have anything to do with it.

In Ireland, however, involvement by media organisations is required if they want to be covered by the fair and reasonable publication defence allowed under the 2009 defamation Act.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t have your protections under that law and not be part of the regulatory system. It’s just a very novel way of making sure that you get complete buy-in,” said Clegg, as Leveson nodded his head in approval.

“The question is whether it’s possible without in some way the framework having an endorsement which doesn’t simply depend upon agreement,” replied Leveson.

“No, because then it becomes pick and choose all over again,” said the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrats leader. “Absolutely,” the judge concurred.

Since the Dowler scandal erupted much of the British press has railed against the idea of statutory regulation, interpreting that to mean regulation by the State. Some, however, have increasingly accepted – most notably Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre – that a new British model has to have some law at its back.

Leveson believes a consensus of sorts is possible: “When, in fact, if you scratch below the surface, most people accept, even people who have come into this inquiry saying it must be self-regulation at all costs, actually, when you push them, they accept you might need some kind of statutory backstop.

“I hope the inquiry will be able to build on what I think is a lurking consensus, rather than dwell on what I think is a superficial disagreement.”

Many of the same arguments were ventilated during the Irish Press Council’s difficult birth, with many involved in the Irish editions of British papers vehemently opposed.

Appearing after Clegg, Alex Salmond said he had “been surprised” by how little attention has been given to the Irish experience, before he was quickly halted by the judge.

“Mr Salmond, you’re pushing at an open door. We have been looking very carefully at the Irish model, and the next module of the inquiry, which will be the future, will include consideration specifically of what can be learnt from the way in which the press are regulated in Ireland,” said the judge.

Salmond was quick to point to the different attitude taken by the Irish Daily Star – half-owned by Richard Desmond – to the Press Council, which it has joined, to the refusal to heed the PCC in London.

“Given that the Irish title or Irish editions of the London press follow this code in Ireland, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the Irish press is not free and able to pursue things.

“In fact, for those of us who know the Irish press, it is an extremely vigorous press indeed – plenty to be vigorous about recently, I suspect they would say.

“But they are an extremely vigorous press and therefore there can’t be a suggestion that somehow papers which are operating under this code in Ireland would find a similar code unacceptable more generally.”

A replication of the Irish model in the UK would require the defamation Bill currently being debated in the Commons to offer the same quid pro quo that Irish media organisation enjoy for taking part in the press council.

Granting the British media any concession – or something that could be perceived as a concession by those who would wish to stamp on its throat – could, however, be difficult in the current febrile environment.