Critics hit out at Leveson’s plans for press

BUSINESS leaders and industry bodies warned against government interference in the press yesterday, and urged the newspaper industry to take the initiative in creating a new regulatory framework.

Shares in paper owners News Corp, Daily Mail & General Trust, and Johnston Press also rose following Lord Justice Leveson’s report despite worries over state regulation, signalling a slight subsiding in City tension over his proposal.

Advertising trade body the ISBA “[Incorporated Society of British Advertisers] said the press needed to “seize the baton” to ward off state regulation. “Advertisers are great believers in self regulation, we know it works,” the organisation’s director of public affairs, Ian Twinn said.

News International, publisher of The Sun and The Times, said it will study the report’s recommendations before commenting in full. But the group insisted that there was no need for legislation.

Chief executive Tom Mockridge said: “We are keen to play our full part in creating a new body that commands the confidence of the public. We believe that this can be achieved without statutory regulation – and welcome the Prime Minister’s rejection of that proposal.”

Financial communications firm Cubbitt Consulting said politicians should not “burn the house to roast the pig”. “We have a world class media in the UK and that can only suffer from statutory regulation,” argued founder Simon Brocklebank-Fowler.

Niri Shan and Mark Dennis of law firm Taylor Wessing warned that handing oversight of the newspaper industry to broadcast quango Ofcom could be problematic.

“Ofcom is a statutory regulator; it has an active role in content regulation for the communications industry. The media is unlikely to want a statutory regulator from a different, heavily-regulated area overseeing its own self-regulatory body,” they said.

Meanwhile the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank warned that Leveson’s suggestion to end private, off-the-record briefings with the press in the name of transparency could backfire: “The public interest will not be served by ending private briefings. Such a restriction would almost certainly have prevented a huge number of stories and scandals coming to public attention.”

Mayor of London Boris Johnson supported this stance, saying briefings will remain an “important part of public life”.

The Metropolitan Police, who have been criticised for their handling of the investigation into allegations of phone hacking, said the report vindicated their officers: “Although there were incidents that left a perception of cosiness between particular senior officers and some journalists, Lord Justice Leveson found that that did not influence or taint decision-making.”

REPORT’S CLAIMS AT A GLANCE

■ The press serves the country “very well for the vast majority of the time”.

■ The existing watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has failed and a new body is required.

■ The PCC should be replaced by an independent self-regulatory body whose chairman and board members must be appointed in a transparent way, without any influence from industry or government.

■ Broadcast regulator Ofcom must act as a “backstop regulator” if newspapers refuse to join the revamped PCC.

■ Legislation is essential to underpin the new body, though this would not give any rights to parliament to control what newspapers publish.

■ The legislation would ensure that the organisation remained independent and also enshrine freedom of the press on the statute book.

■Newspapers that refuse to take part in the new self-regulatory body could face punishment from broadcast regulator Ofcom.

■ There should be a new code of conduct for journalists.

■ Newspapers found guilty of major breaches of the code of conduct could be fined up to one per cent of their turnover – up to £1m.

■ A hotline should be established for journalists who want to reveal that they are being forced to act in unethical ways.

■ There should be a new route for members of the public to seek arbitration without going through the courts if they feel they have been treated unfairly.

■ The new regulator would investigate complaints and enforce swift justice if required.

■ Over the last 30 years political parties have developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest.

■ More meetings between politicians and the press should be disclosed.

■ There should be changes to the way that the police and politicians give off-the-record briefings to the press.

■ Decisions on media ownership should be made more transparent.

■ Journalists have at times “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” while chasing stories.

■ It is now up to politicians to “decide who guards the guardians”.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON'S VISION OF THE REGULATORY FUTURE

INDEPENDENT BOARD
Made up of a majority of people independent of the press.

Appointed in accordance with statutory criteria by a process approved in advance by Ofcom

MEMBERSHIP
Open to all publishers on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

Funding is agreed between the board and members on a transparent, medium term basis, approved by Ofcom and is adequate to deliver functions.

STANDARD CODE
Adopted by the Board, following consultation and advised by editors. Covering:
*Conduct
*Respect for privacy
*Accuracy

COMPLAINTS HANDLING
Decisions on individual complaints – may be taken by sub-committee, but with appeal to the board.

All breaches of the code to be recorded and any remedies to include publication of corrections and apologies.

STANDARDS ENFORCEMENT
Independent investigations of serious and systematic problems – will cover internal governance standards and serious and systematic code breaches, with sanctions to include appropriate and proportionate financial sanctions

ARBITRATION SERVICE
Fair, quick and inexpensive, with an agreement to use the arbitration service is a condition of membership. Non-members may face disadvantageous costs awards and aggravated or exemplary damages in court