Almost a year to the day after the Levelson enquiry was set up Lord Justice Leveson presented his report on the press and the public. At the beginning of the week there had been a proposal put forward by Lord Black who is the chair of the by the Press Board of Finance highlighting the danger of statutory regulation, this looks now like spoiler for Lord Leveson and rather confirms the worries of those who feel that not only are the problems with control over the press but the press establishment is resistant to change.
In presenting his report Lord Leveson tried to focus the responses on the specific issues that underly the problems and remove the personalities from the debate. However despite this David Cameron buoyed up by him and his government in main being resolved from any wrong doing appeared immediately to speak against the report, in fact there were some rumours he was to respond to Lord Black proposal before the report was published.
The problem faced by politicians is the freedom of the press, indeed Lord Leveson spoke eloquently about the importance of the press as an ever vigilant voice speaking out against the establishment and keeping the politicians ‘honest’. He also however highlighted that a section of the press had acted totally without any control and had ‘wreaked havoc’ with the lives of innocent people.
So the solution has to balance the presses freedom to be the vigilant eyes and ears of the nation to protect it from corruption from inside and ensuring that the press does not itself become a threat to the individual.
Lord Leveson tries to balance these two objectives by proposing that a new self-regulatory body be set up which is totally independent of the press establishment. Currently the press is regulated by the press complaints commission which is funded by the press but more importantly made up of members selected from the press, Leveson described this as the press “marking their own home-work.” in Leveson’s proposal the new regulatory body would be made up of members outside the press industry – but with a wider knowledge of the press and society- this would it is suggested better represent the public interest and remove the bias towards the Newspapers.
This new body would offer arbitration and have teeth but unlike the PCC membership would be compulsory – more controversially there would be government overview established in law. This would mean that there would be a channel for political input and sanction. Leveson describes his solution as self-regulation with statutory oversight.
The Problem with Leveson
It is the statutory aspect of Lord Leveson’s report that has promoted concerns and has made odd bed fellows of David Cameron and Private Eyes Ian Hislop, both believe that statutory regulation would put the UK into an unenviable group of nations where the press is controlled by statute. In countries such North Korea and Syria the press is not free to comment on their governments along with many other undesirable states around the world, every year a report is produced by the US rating the freedom of the press emphasising the important link between democracy and the freedom of the press (See the freedom of the press report), in the UK the free press was established in 1688.
David Cameron spoke against the statutory control in the house yesterday, as a matter of principle, while the deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg supported Leveson setting the two sides of the coalition against each other.
Ian Hislop who gave evidence to the commission also spoke against the report – pointing out that the phone hacking was illegal as was bribery, it was the collaboration between the Police and the press that had prevented thorough investigation and prosecutions. Had the law as it stands operated correctly much of what happened would have been exposed and individuals prosecuted earlier which would have probably prevented the excesses developing.
It is unlikely that the status quo will be maintained – but whether what happens as a result of the Leveson report constitutes just window dressing or full implementation will rely on the support in the house for David Cameron and frankly it appears that he us lined up against his coalition partners and the labour party who, should it come to a vote, will win. However it has been clear from the outset that there are wider issues at stake so there will be a lot of politics going on before any outcomes from this controversial report are realised.