How Leveson’s press regulator would work

On Thursday, the long awaited report of the Leveson inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the press” was published. Based on reading the executive summary, Leveson proposes:

  • an “independent self regulatory” body be established to:
    • promote high standards of journalism and protect the rights of individuals
    • be responsible for a code of conduct for all subscribers, including requiring them to have fast complaints procedures, plus appropriate, transparent internal governance processes.
    • be advised on the code of contact by a code committee that can include serving editors.
    • hear and complaints, with serving editors being barred from advising the board on such complaints
    • provide a low cost arbitration service related to civil claims in relation to breaches of the code of conduct
    • have the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches of the code of conduct by subscribers
  • the board of the regulatory body would comprise:
    • a majority of people independent of the press
    • “sufficient” people with experience of the industry but not including serving editors, MPs or members of the government.
  • the board would be appointed in a “fair and open” process by an appointments panel that itself would be independent of the press and the government. Leveson proposes that the panel be established by Ofcom
  • whilst membership of the body would be voluntary, Leveson envisages that all “significant news publishers” would subscribe to the the new body. In the event of failure for this to happen he suggests Ofcom could operate as a backstop regulator
  • the main incentive for publishers to subscribe to the body would be the provision of low cost arbitration which should be cheaper than going to court in the event of disputes
  • according to recommendation 8: “the code must take into account the importance of freedom of speech, the interests of the public (including the public interest in detecting or exposing crime or serous impropriety, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being seriously misled) and the rights of individuals. Specifically, it must cover standards of:(a) conduct, especially in relation to the treatment of other people in the process of obtaining material; (b) appropriate respect for privacy where there is no sufficient public interest justification for breach and (c) accuracy, and the need to avoid misrepresentation.”
  • Leveson also suggests consideration be given to amending the code of conduct to equip the regulator “with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation” (recommendation 38).
  • The role of legislation in all this is restricted to:
    • enshrining a legal duty for the government to uphold the freedom of the press
    • providing “an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met” (a role leveson suggests would be given to Ofcom)
    • “by recognising the new body, it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the benefits in law that would flow to those who subscribed”
    • Leveson summarises: “What is 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 by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership.” (section 73)
  • Leveson emphasies that the legislation would not establish the new regulatory body itself or give rights to the regulatory body, parliament or the government to prevent material being published or to require material to be published, except that the regulatory body would be able to require corrections and apologies to be published and direct how such corrections or apologies are placed.

It seems to me this raises quite a few questions such as:

  • how independent can the body really be?
  • when would a web based site (e.g. a blog) be considered a “significant news publisher”?
  • won’t web based publishing undermine this, if only because web based publishers can easily be based outside the jurisidiction of British laws let alone the regulatory body?
  • given that the the press would be held to a code of conduct rather than merely be required to obey the law, isn’t there an inherent threat to freedom of speech there?
  • will this setup actually stand a chance of addressing the problems Leveson was set up to address, namely the lying, disregard for accuracy, invasion of privacy for trivial reasons, intimidation and cosy relationships with politicians and police?

I intend to comment on these questions in later posts.

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