By Michael Northcott Thursday, 29 November 2012

PM fails to back Leveson law

Leveson wants some clever legislation to tighten up on media behaviour, but David Cameron has ruled out anything written in law. Doesn't look like there are any quick answers here...

After listening to months of testimonies from politicians, musicians, film stars, writers and parents of murdered schoolchildren, Brian Leveson has come to his conclusions on what should be done to make British press behave itself. Rejecting the much-mooted regulatory body, he has called for the creation of a ‘genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation’ underpinned by legislation that ‘enshrines’ the freedom of the press. But Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear in Parliament this afternoon: he does not want new laws. 

In his 1,987-page report, Leveson condemned the ‘outrageous’ behaviour of some elements of the newspaper industry, saying that some papers had ‘wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people’. He also criticised the close relationship that many politicians have maintained with the press over the years. The report stopped short of recommending statutory powers to control the press in a similar way to other industries. But it did also seem to reject the idea that a simply beefier version of the press’s current ‘self-regulation’ would suffice. Some form of legislation is needed to improve upon the status quo, apparently.

But Cameron’s view, shared by most politicians and of course the media, is that freedom of the press is a crucial. He expressed concern in a Commons debate this afternoon that creating written legislation could open the door to restrictions on the freedom of the press further down the line. Most MPs who stood to speak agreed that that the freedom is an essential component of British democracy. After all, people have fought and died for the right to a free press: very few people want to throw that away. Cue a massive, lengthy public debate on which no conclusions are reached for at least a few more years.

In the meantime, Cameron’s response is a lucky escape for the newspaper industry. With profits falling left, right and centre and some papers even running at a loss, a regulator deciding what they can print might well have been the nail in the coffin. Given the extra costs that being compliant with regulations would entail, it looks like they may have staved off a more rapid decline.

If Leveson’s recommendations are taken straight from the page, then a sort of independent arbitration body would be set up to deal with disputes more rapidly than the courts system does currently. Would this be enough to dissuade some papers from illegally hacking phones or harassing celebrities? Well, your guess is as good as ours. Furthermore, we can reasonably expect fines for wrongdoing to be larger, and for the courts to get a bit more heavy-handed, but that could be down to the public’s more hostile view of tabloids since the phone-hacking scandal erupted. 

If any legislation did go on the statute book – and that looks supremely unlikely – then it wouldn’t be until at least 2014-2015. Given Cameron’s flat rejection of new legislation, this debate is sure to rage on for many moons. MT will be sure to bring you the latest – and we won’t hack anyone’s phone.

For our editor Matthew Gwyther's view on the issue, click here.

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