PRIME Minister and Witney MP David Cameron has warned Parliament should be “wary” of passing legislation to regulate the press of the kind recommended in the long-awaited Leveson Report on media standards.
In a damning report, Lord Justice Leveson condemned decades of “outrageous” behaviour by newspapers, finding elements of the press repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
He proposed a new independent press regulator with “credible” rules and powers to enforce them, and said this should be underpinned by legislation giving the statutory regulator Ofcom a role “verifying” the independence and effectiveness of the new body.
Responding to the report in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron gave a broad welcome to Leveson’s proposal for a regulator with the power to demand prominent apologies and impose fines of up to £1m, and said the onus was now on the press to implement these principles.
But the Prime Minister cast doubt on Leveson’s central recommendation that a new system of press self-regulation required a statutory underpinning if it was to command public confidence.
“I have some serious concerns and misgivings about this recommendation,” he told MPs in a Commons statement. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law.
“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
Mr Cameron’s lukewarm response to Leveson provoked criticism from a number of MPs, including Labour leader Ed Miliband, who said Parliament should put its faith in the judge’s recommendations.
Mr Miliband called for legislation in the next session of Parliament to put Leveson’s central recommendations on to the statute book by 2015.
“We should put our faith in the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson,” said the Labour leader yesterday. “I am sorry the Prime Minister is not yet there, but I hope to convince him over the days ahead that is where we should go. We should put our trust in Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.”
The extent of division within the coalition Government over the future of press regulation was set to be made clear in an address to the Commons by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – the first time since the creation of the coalition in 2010 when Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers have given separate statements in the same debate.
Leveson’s recommendations – in a 2,000-page report that also heavily criticised politicians for becoming too cosy with the media, leave Mr Cameron with a major headache as he seeks to forge cross-party consensus.
Leveson’s central proposal is for an independent press regulation body with powers to hear complaints and impose penalties, but also to promote high standards of journalism and to provide a “fair, quick and inexpensive” arbitration service.
The body should have a majority of members independent of the industry, and no serving editor, MP or minister.
Legislative underpinning for the system would allow publications which fail to sign up to be penalised through the award of costs or exemplary damages in court cases, Leveson suggested. In the last resort, Ofcom could be brought in to act as a “backstop” regulator for papers that refuse to take part.
“I have made it clear I firmly believe it to be in the best interests of the public and the industry that it should indeed accept the challenge,” he said.
Main recommendations of the Leveson Report
- A new self-regulatory body to be backed by legislation guaranteeing its independence of the press, of parliament and of the Government.
- Ofcom to “recognise and certify” that the body meets the requirements of the legislation – and then review its operation after two years and then at three-yearly intervals.
- The board of the new body to have a majority of non-press members, though with a “sufficient number” of ex-editors, senior journalists and academics with detailed knowledge of the industry. Serving editors barred as well as MPs and other Government ministers.
- The board to produce a standards code, with the advice of independent members and editors.
- The board to be free to launch inquiries into suspected breaches and have the power to fine newspapers up to one per cent of turnover (to a maximum of £1m) and direct the publication of corrections and apologies.
- A “fair, quick and inexpensive” arbitration service, free to non-frivolous or vexatious complainants, to resolve complaints outside of court.
- Funding for the system to be agreed between the board and the industry on a four to five-year basis.
- The new body to consider establishing a kite mark to certify “a recognised brand of trusted journalism”.
- A whistleblower hotline for reporters who feel they are being asked to act in breach of the code.
- Exemptions for journalists from data protection laws to be significantly watered down.
- Newspapers to be encouraged to be more transparent about the nature of sources – while retaining the right not to name them.