Commenting on the conclusions on the Leveson Inquiry, Michael Fabricant (a former member of the Culture Media & Sport Committee for many years) has issued the following Statement:-
I have been appalled by the actions of some newspapers and a few journalists over the years. It is not just a recent phenomenon. The press were told they were “drinking at the last chance saloon” back in 1989 after they had behaved badly. What is clear is that the status quo is not an option. The press cannot be allowed to continue as they are. However, the question is how tightly a free press in a democratic nation should be regulated and whether a legal framework is needed to do it at all. I don’t believe we should rush into a quick decision on this.
As background, the Prime Minister set up the Leveson Inquiry following phone hacking allegations. He announced a judge-led public inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal on 13 July 2011. The Inquiry examined the culture, practices and ethics of the media, and in particular the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians. And Lord Justice Leveson published his report on 29 November 2012.
This is a 2,000 page document and there is much to absorb.
The Press and the Police. Lord Justice Leveson makes a number of recommendations including national guidance on appropriate gifts and hospitality record-keeping of contact between very senior police officers and journalists and a 12-month ‘cooling-off’ period for senior police officers being employed by the press. These are designed to break the perception of an excessively cosy relationship between the press and the police.
The Government supports these recommendations.
The Press and Politicians. This is the first government ever to publish details of meetings between senior politicians and proprietors, editors or senior executives, as Lord Justice Leveson recommends. He also recommends disclosing further information on the overall level of interaction. This would apply to all parties.
The Government accepts this recommendation.
The Press and the Public. Lord Justice Leveson says: The Press Complaints Commission is ‘neither a regulator nor fit for purpose to fulfil that responsibility.’ I agree. Lord Justice Leveson sets out proposals for independent self-regulation organised by the media. He details the key requirements that an independent self-regulatory body should meet, including independence of appointments and funding, a standards code, an arbitration service, and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism – crucially – with the power to demand up-front apologies and impose million-pound fines. These are the Leveson principles. They are the central recommendations of the report. If they can be put in place, we will truly have a regulatory system that delivers public confidence, justice for the victims, and a step-change in the way the press is regulated in our country.
The Prime Minister accepts these recommendations too.
But Lord Justice Leveson makes some important additional proposals.
Some changes to the Data Protection Act that would reduce the special treatment that journalists are afforded when dealing with personal data.
This needs to be considered very carefully – particularly the impact this could have on investigative journalism. It is possible that the full extent of the MP expenses scandal, for instance, could not have been exposed had these changes been made.
Lord Justice Leveson goes on to propose legislation to provide: ‘an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met.’
I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation. They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity. The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have written elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. We should think very carefully before crossing this line though it may still be necessary.
On the grounds of practicality, however simple the intention, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would be more complicated. Lord Justice Leveson says that: ‘the law must identify those legitimate requirements and provide a mechanism to recognise and certify that a new body meets them.’ The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
And on the grounds of necessity, statute may not be necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives. There may be alternative options of putting in place incentives, providing reassurance to the public and ensuring the Leveson principles are put in place and these options must be explored.
So I am against making any snap judgement one way or another on the Leveson Report until all avenues have been explored.
If, however, after this process the only alternative is to introduce a legal framework, then I will support this.