What should be done following Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press? If the new year sees it allowed to gather dust on a high shelf in the Library of the House, I fear we will missed an historic opportunity to put in place, once and for all, a proper check on the system of newspaper self-regulation which has eluded parliamentarians over the decades.
Like many colleagues, I have had the benefit of listening directly to victims of press harassment, intrusion, phone-hacking and other abuses. Their stories are deeply moving and often shocking.
Ordinary members of the public whose lives were turned upside down by tragedy have then suffered the secondary injury of being defamed in public or threatened in private; sometimes, they have experienced both. Take a few examples: the new mother, stalked in the maternity ward by two photographers disguised as doctors; the parents, grieving the loss of their daughter who found themselves slandered as murderers in order to sell papers; a young woman, appallingly injured and left for dead, whose private medical information was splashed across the pages of a tabloid. Some of these cases are well known, but the point is this: it could have happened to any one of us. Whoever we are, we remain vulnerable to a predatory press culture which regards private information from anyone as fair game to publish, even if the way in which it was obtained was patently illegal.
Much has been made about the need to use existing law, but this is to ignore reality. Defamation or privacy proceedings are prohibitively expensive for most people and will remain so. The major criminal investigations into the activities of certain parts of the press is only happening as a result of the furore that erupted in 2011, and with the co-operation of News International. I remain sceptical as to the capacity of the criminal law to deal with press misconduct.
Ordinary members of the public will remain vulnerable unless action is taken to address the problems identified by Lord Justice Leveson after his exhaustive inquiry. Parliamentarians are well aware of the historic failures. Over the past 65 years the press has been given a succession of last chances to make self-regulation work. All these opportunities have been wasted. The result has been crisis after crisis, inquiry after inquiry and real harm caused to thousands of innocent people.
The latest plan – put forward by the Government in good faith – a Royal Charter to underpin press self regulation sadly falls down in many ways.
The most egregious problems are that it has dubious legal provenance. It fails to specify the standards to which the press self-regulator will be expected to perform. And it offers no guarantee that after five years there will be any system of regulation in place whatsoever.
As it stands, it is regrettably not worth the parchment it’s written on. By stark contrast, the Leveson Bill prepared by Parliamentary Counsel, and published today by Hacked Off, represents a significant step forward in resolving these problems. Most certainly, it is a vast improvement upon the draft Bill that was put forward with great haste by the Labour Party last month.
The Leveson Bill has clear legal validity. It specifies in the terms that Leveson envisaged the standards which the independent self-regulator would have to meet. It is the only document that has been produced which I believe comes close to accurately representing the wider public interest and the interests of the victims of phone hacking and other forms of press harassment.
Victims do not think that a self regulator can pass an inspection as independent and efficient without a proper, agreed system of checks. Unless the press works within a system that is truly independent and is underpinned by statute, then nothing will have been learned from the Leveson process.