So, the Leveson Inquiry is out but what is it and what happens next?
An enquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson was called for following the News of the World phone-hacking scandal which raised a torrent of questions about press standards, ethics and regulation. The Inquiry delved into the relationship between the press and the public. It included interviews of journalists, politicians, purported victims of press intrusion, newspaper bosses and various other advisors.
Central to the Inquiry was the issue of regulating the press; what standards should they adhere to and who should regulate how they operate and what they publish?
The current regulation of the press is via an ‘in-house’ regulator known as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). This was set up by the press and is regulated and operated by the press. Is the Commission Independent? Probably not. But is that the issue? Who knows, but since the scandal the issue of independence has raised concerns over the PCC and its formation and operation. What is now clear is that the public and the Leveson Inquiry require at least the image of independence and some transparency in the way complaints to the press are dealt with since the News of the World scandal undermined how effective self-regulation in this area was. The BBC has said the PCC is now in a “transitional phase” following the Leveson Inquiry and will remain like this until a long-term replacement is established, pretty well cementing the end of the PCC and the implementation of a new regulator.
The most controversial issue raised by the Leveson Inquiry is who will regulate the press. Lord Justice Leveson has suggested a new body created by the industry to regulate the press should be set up but that it should be backed by legislation to ensure the regulation is independent and effective. Independent? This question arises again, but not in relation to independence from the press. The idea of a statutory basis for regulation raises far more issues of independence than an in-house body such as the PCC ever did. The UK is a democratic state, at the centre of which is freedom of speech and the exercise of this right by the press to comment on controversial government policies. If part of the regulation of the press was handed over to the legislature it suggests that the government is able to stifle and censor free speech. What is worse, a government controlled press or a press able to regulate itself?
The answer probably lies somewhere between these two extremes and will see some form of regulator independent of the press but more importantly, independent of the government and state. This should please both the press and the public and serve to alleviate some of the issues raised by each side. It is clear the press needs regulation especially in light of the News of the World scandal but exactly what the form of such regulation should take will be a hotly debated topic and certainly one to follow. At the moment Mr Cameron does not seem in favour of a statutory framework for regulation meaning there is hope for freedom of speech yet!
All information is correct on the date of posting.