How would the independence of Leveson’s regulator be guaranteed?

An independent regulatory body should be established, with the dual roles of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals.(Leveson Report, Executive Summary, Section 57, page 14, emphasis added)

My earlier article summarised Leveson’s proposals with respect to this body, the aim of this article is to examine the question of how independence is to be achieved. As the executive summary makes clear, the new body should be independent of both the press, MPs and the government. Leveson proposes to achieve this by:

  • Ensuring that a majority of the board are “independent” of the press with no serving editors, MPs or members of the government on it.
  • Requiring the appointments panel to have a “substantial majority” of members independent of the press, and no more than one current editor of a publication that could be a member to be on the panel.
  • Restricting the role of legislation to that of specifiying a process for recognising the regulator (via a recognition body) and certifying that it meets certain criteria laid out in statute.
  • The recognition body will not play any role in regulation of the press.
  • Leveson suggests Ofcom as the recognition body.

Thus we can envisage the following happening if Leveson were implemented in full:

  • Legislation is drawn up specifying the criteria for recognising the press regulator, granting the status of recognition body to Ofcom.
  • MPs will debate and vote on this legislation.
  • Once enacted, Ofcom will set up the appointments panel and they will appoint the board of the press regulator, in accordance with the legislation specifying the criteria by which both the panel and the board are to be appointed.
  • The press regulator, having been set up would oversee drawing up code of conduct, agree funding arrangements with the press, whilst the press would join the regulator based on the benefits Leveson sets out.

The level of independence achieved can thus be described as “operational independence” – its decisions about the code of conduct, whether a member has violated the code, whether to investigate violations of the code and what punishments to apply would be made by the board or by the arbitration service. However MPs will determine the criterion by which the regulator is judged and recognised when they legislate, and Ofcom will be charged with putting these criterion into practice and e.g. whether all “significant news publishers” have become members.

It seems to me this means that the regulator will be no more “independent” of the government than any other quango. It may have operational autonomy, but its role is still determined by MPs. Can we trust the MPs not to frame the criterion by which the regulator operates in a manner that protects their own interests?

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