Lord Justice Leveson is seeking to hold the feet of both the British newspaper industry and the country’s politicians to the flames. In a 2000-page report following his high-profile hearing into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British media, he has delivered a challenge not just to editors and proprietors, but to the government who now have to respond to his recommendations.
His report recognizes the importance of a free press, independent from politicians, but sets that against the catalogue of corrupt, criminal and bullying behaviour exposed in evidence to his inquiry.
His carefully constructed recommendations sought to deliver accountability and transparency to oversight of the press while supporting the freedom to report — including at times raucously and mischievously. He proposed a new independent watchdog set up by the industry — but one with a legal backstop to ensure it had teeth.
However, his assertion that there was no way this could be fairly characterized as “statutory regulation” has been met with a loud “Wanna bet?” from both editors and Prime Minister David Cameron who, within hours of the judge reporting, had said he was not convinced that any legal backstop was wise or needed. This dismantles the delicate balance of carrot and stick that Lord Leveson had devised.
Lord Leveson set out a mixture of incentive and coercion by offering Britain’s own version of the First Amendment to the United States constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech, alongside the new very independent watchdog and potentially large fines.
The newspaper industry, which has enjoyed self regulation — in other words, the ability to “mark its own homework,” as it is described — is reluctant to cede control. So they, with the Prime Minister in tow, characterize any law as an intrusion into the principle of a free press. The victims of the tabloids and their lobbyists — and political opposition — see the law as the only means of ensuring the bad behaviour of the past doesn’t return. It’s on this ground that the battle will now be fought.
Lord Leveson has largely let both politicians and police off the hook, in spite of evidence they were both too close to the Rupert Murdoch-owned press in particular. He may therefore have hoped the government would look favourably on his more controversial recommendations over regulation and pushed them though.
Mr. Cameron has welcomed the “Leveson principles” around independent regulation, but sided with the press in saying no legislation is needed. The opposition sits squarely behind the recommendations. Much rests therefore with the Liberal Democrats — a real test for this coalition government.
The industry has been told to come back with stronger, more independent proposals than they have previously offered — but will they be as tough as Lord Leveson prescribes? It seems unlikely. The politicians have to decide whether to simply accept a revised industry plan or push forward with a new law which will put steel into the proposals.
The problem with just accepting the industry promise to do better is they have said that before — repeatedly, with seven inquiries in 70 years — and always slipped back. The problem with a new law is the press will fight it tooth and nail in the run-up to the next election when all political parties will be seeking media support.
It’s hard to see how any report could have done more. He’s offered a beefed-up regulator, sought to preserve self-regulation, and conspicuously made it independent of parliament or the press. But so far the vested interests are still entrenched. Lord Leveson has handed over his report and is leaving the stage — effectively telling the politicians: “Over to you”. It could be a rocky few months.
Richard Sambrook, a former director of BBC News, the BBC World Service and BBC Global News, is a professor of journalism at Cardiff University.