And so the 2,000-page
Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of the Press has landed
with an almighty thump in anxious news rooms up and down the country.
As a businessman with
media interests (including a controlling one in this website), I have been awaiting
the publication of the report with a growing sense of anticipation.
Equally, as someone
who was a victim of the excesses of the Press (or more specifically The Times) during my own annus
horribilis in 1999, I have been eager to learn how Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations
would give wronged members of the public greater powers to fight back.
Over more than eight
enthralling months, more than 600 people, ranging from Prime Ministers to
aggrieved celebrities and powerful media moguls, gave evidence to the inquiry,
either as witnesses or in statements.
However, it is the
image of wronged members of the public, notably the parents of murdered
schoolgirl Milly Dowler, that will live in the memories of most people for many
years to come.
Could allegations that
a newspaper (the News of the World) was
responsible for hacking Milly’s voicemail while she was missing, then deleting
them to allow more to be left, really be true, when the inevitable consequences
were that the schoolgirl’s desperately-worried parents would be given false
hope that she was still alive?
In his findings today,
Lord Justice Leveson proposes a tougher form of self-regulation backed by
legislation to uphold press standards. He would like to see the new body as
being overseen by Ofcom, the independent communications watchdog.
Lord Justice Leveson wants the independent
regulator to have the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million, or 1 per cent
of turnover, for breaching a new code of conduct.
When the Leveson
inquiry opened more than a year ago, I wrote in my blog of 16 November 2011
that I was relishing poring over the evidence that would be presented to the
I also predicted –
accurately as it has turned out – that it would be elements of the quality newspapers,
not just tabloids, that would be left to squirm over some of the unsavoury
revelations. Don’t forget that back in February of this year James Harding, the
editor of The Times, was recalled to
the inquiry over fresh revelations of email hacking by a member of his staff.
Furthermore, I wrote
more than a year ago: “What I do want to see, however,
is a fair and thorough scrutiny of the press, because it is long overdue. For
too long, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has been a toothless watchdog
and the levels of scrutiny by some – and I stress some – newspapers of the
activities of their own reporters have been totally inadequate.”
A proper scrutiny, under the able
chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, has now taken place and today he, like
me, also concludes that the PCC and its powers are insufficient to curb the worst
aspects of the Press.
I certainly do not
want to see the freedom of the Press, something that has been protected for
some 300 years, curbed by draconian new laws.
My instinctive reaction
to today’s report is similar to that of my good friend, William Hague, who said
earlier this week that the Government should "err
on the side of freedom" when considering plans for press regulation.
I, like others, am
still examining the fine detail of the report. However, I certainly welcome one
proposal: that the Information Commissioner should be
given greater powers to prosecute newspapers for breaches of data protection.
For I have repeatedly seen that too many newspapers have not taken such laws
seriously in recent years.
Time will tell whether
all, or some, of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations are adopted by the
Government but, whatever happens, this inquiry and its report will mark a
watershed for the Press.
Newspapers will have
to be more accountable than ever before to the public, in general, and their
readers, in particular. Never again will all-too common practices such as
hacking mobile phones and bribing the police and other public officials be
tolerated by a watchful public which, from now on, will demand that – at the
very least – the Press must abide by the
same laws as the rest of us.
Lord Ashcroft’s account of his battle
with The Times and New Labour appears in his book Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, which can be downloaded from his website: www.lordashcroft.com