LORD Justice Leveson has called for tougher regulation of the British press underpinned by law, as he unveiled the long-awaited findings of his inquiry into newspaper standards.
In a damning report, he condemned decades of “outrageous” behaviour and concluded that some elements acted as if the industry code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
David Cameron yesterday split open his coalition as he defied the judge’s recommendations to argue that Britain’s newspapers should not be punished for the phone-hacking scandal by being regulated under new laws.
Following cross-party talks last night, Labour sources claimed the Prime Minister had not completely ruled out the prospect of legislation.
But Downing Street sources said the government would draft a Leveson Bill simply “to show it would not work”.
During a dramatic afternoon at
Westminster, the Prime Minister urged MPs not to “step over the Rubicon” by writing press laws into statute, insisting that the principle of a press entirely free from political control had to be maintained.
Instead, he backed calls for a new independent regulator with the power to fine papers up to £1 million for breaching a new code of conduct, which would field public complaints over abuses.
It prompted an immediate split within the coalition, as
deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg declared he wanted the powers of a new watchdog overseeing press abuses written into law.
And it paved the way for a different regime north and south of the Border, as First Minister Alex Salmond indicated he too wanted “statutory underpinning” of a new system.
Powers over press regulation are devolved, meaning the Scottish Parliament could now opt to enshrine its own laws on the press in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the family of
murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler – whose case triggered the inquiry last year – said Mr Cameron had “failed” to ensure that such a scandal would not happen again.
However, pro-free speech campaigners said the Prime Minister was right to defend the independence of the press from political control, insisting that any attempt to introduce legislation could place dramatic curbs on the freedom of journalists to hold the powerful to account.
Describing the 30-minute cross-party talks as “frank, robust and to the point”, Labour said Mr Cameron agreed that the
Department for Culture, Media and Sport would draft a Bill for consideration.
The political row came within hours of Lord Leveson publishing his mammoth 1,987-page four-volume report into the ethics of the press and the relationship between the print media, politicians and the police.
He said some newspapers had “wreaked havoc” on the lives of innocent people, adding that the treatment meted out to the
families of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann had been “outrageous”.
His inquiry had been triggered last year by the claim that the now defunct News of the World had been hacking into the phone of Milly Dowler while her family and police were
desperately searching for her.
The inquiry then heard evidence from celebrities and ordinary people who said they had been subjected to excessive harassment from the press, including one case where the McCann family were accused of selling their daughter for money.
Lord Leveson’s central recommendation was to replace the industry-controlled Press Complaints Commission with a new independent regulator. The industry would create the body, he said, but it would then be
independent of both politicians and the newspaper trade, with serving editors and MPs banned from serving on its board.
Wronged parties who had suffered at the hands of the press should also be able to seek swift redress, he added, through an arbitration system written into the new regulator’s powers. This would ensure people could quickly get prominent apologies and lead to heavy fines.
Crucially, however, the judge said that in order to ensure its independence, the regulator should be underpinned by
legislation, which would also enshrine the freedom of the press.
Anticipating claims of a new press law, Lord Leveson said: “The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the government or to any other body, to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever.”
He added: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not statutory regulation of the press.
“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.”
But Lord Leveson’s call for statutory underpinning left Mr Cameron with the prospect of a split House of Commons, with even his own Tory backbenchers divided over whether or not to write new press regulations into law.
And within two hours of Lord Leveson’s report being published, Mr Cameron told the Commons that there should not be any new law, warning it would set a clear precedent of political oversight over a free press.
“The danger is this would create an opportunity for politicians today or some time in the future to impose regulations on the press,” he said. “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to limit free speech and a free press.”
However, Mr Clegg took over at the dispatch box from Mr Cameron to tell him bluntly he was wrong, saying: “Changing the law is the only way to ensure the regulation isn’t just independent for months or years, but is independent for good.”
He was supported by Labour leader Ed Miliband and by Mr Salmond, who said last night he backed what he described earlier this week as the “happy compromise” of statutory underpinning of self-regulation.
He said: “That puts us in the territory of the Press Council of Ireland which might provide a good template for the way forward. Clearly, we will have to be satisfied that this can be done within the context of a free press.”
Mr Salmond said he would be holding his own cross-party talks with a view to setting up an independent implementation group under the chairmanship of a Court of Session judge to study how the recommendations could apply in Scotland, with a debate at Holyrood next week.