02-12-12

The Leveson Report

 

he long awaited and eagerly anticipated report by Lord Justice Leveson into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK press was finally published on Thursday, 29 November 2012, amid much fanfare. 
 
What was there to hope for on behalf of the many clients that we have acted for who have been defamed and/or had their rights to privacy wilfully ignored by the editors of the tabloid press?  With little real change in press behaviour since the Leveson Inquiry began (in my view), I was hoping for the recommendation of a truly independent (of all editors and politicians) regulatory body to police the press, membership of which would be compulsory for all and which would have the necessary power to hand down meaningful sanctions for those straying from its code of conduct.  At present, tabloid editors can blatantly ignore the PCC Editors’ Code safe in the knowledge that the financial consequences are likely to be minor, if any.  It is interesting to note that broadcasters very rarely flout the Ofcom rules, primarily because of the very heavy financial penalties that would be handed down to them if they did. 
 
So what does the report contain and does it go far enough?  It recognises the fact that the press has “wreaked havoc” on the lives of many innocent people.  It also recommends independent self-regulation of the press to be underpinned by statute. The key words here are “independent” (i.e. independent of all editors and politicians) and “statutory underpinning” (i.e. to ensure that the regulator is truly independent, functions properly and legally obliges its members to abide by its rules). Leveson advocates a voluntary system, whereby editors are invited to join up but face stiff penalties if they don’t (i.e. regulation by Ofcom). Personally, I might have gone further and insisted on compulsory membership for all editors and therefore one set of rules for all, so there can be no confusion as to what is required. 
 
The Prime Minister has shied away from statutory underpinning, as recommended by Leveson, despite saying that he would implement all his findings provided they weren’t “bonkers”. I can only conclude that the reason for doing so is to avoid the perceived impression that he would be “shackling” freedom of speech. To my mind, this misses the point. Statutory underpinning is not the same as statutory regulation. The former is simply to ensure that the framework is put in place to guarantee independence and to make sure that those who have signed up to it abide by its rules. It is important to note that Leveson recommends self regulation and therefore these rules would be drawn up by the industry and not by statute or by government.  Statute would then only come into play if these self-made rules were flouted.  Clearly statutory regulation – where the press is in some way being told what they can and cannot print - would be a far bigger threat to the freedom of expression, but - very specifically - this is not what is being recommended.  In the context of the statutory underpinning of the rules and codes of conduct of doctors, accountants or lawyers for example, it is difficult to comprehend why the press are so set against this if, as many of them state, they are so genuinely prepared to improve their standards.   
 
The Leveson Report extends to just under 2,000 pages, took 12 months to put together, cost approximately £5m and took an enormous amount of courage for those core participants who were willing to put themselves through the stress of reliving their experiences in public. By contrast, the Prime Minister has decided to nail his colours to the mast within 24 hours of the report coming out. Can he and his advisers possibly have read and properly digested all the findings and recommendations contained in the report? Could he not have reported back in January, having given the report the full consideration it deserves?  Not only is this a disservice to Lord Justice Leveson but also to the core participants who gave evidence to the enquiry. 
 
The report also fails to address the real elephant in the room; namely, how to police the internet, and, in particular, social networking sites such as Twitter.  Only one of the report’s 2,000 pages deals with this subject. The internet makes a mockery of the judicial system simply because those websites and their operators are either based outside of the jurisdiction (and therefore more difficult to reach through court action) and/or are subscribed to by people who can hide their identity and who are therefore often extremely difficult to track down and expose to sanction.  
 
I had hoped that this 7th attempt in 70 years would have provided a golden opportunity to properly regulate the press once and for all and to ensure that in future it acts within the law and respects the rights and reputations of the very many innocent people that it has chosen to ignore over so many years.
 
Roddy Chisholm Batten currently acts for 11 Claimants in the Mobile Telephone Voicemail Interception Litigation and has provided interviews on the findings of the Leverson Report to Radio 5 Live, Breakfast Show and for Sky News on Friday, 30 November 2012.