The House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has published its long awaited report on “Press standards, privacy and libel”.   This is 167 pages – the pdf is here – but it is more straightforward to browse the HTML version here

Much of the press commentary so far has focussed on the findings relating to “phone hacking” by the News of the World”  – it is, for example, the front page story in the “Guardian”.

However, the aim of the report is said to be

“to arrive at recommendations that, if implemented, would help to restore the delicate balances associated with the freedom of the press”

The recommendations of the Select Committee are set out under five headings: Privacy and breach of confidence; Libel and press freedom; Costs; Press Standards, Self-Regulation of the Press.

In relation to “Privacy”, the Committee rejects legislation and mandatory pre-publication notification, however they do recommend that the PCC should amend its Code to include a requirement that journalists should normally notify the subject of their articles prior to publication, subject to a ‘public interest’ test.  It also recommends that aggravated damages should be available where there has been no notification.  The Report rejects the repeated criticism of Eady J. and the overwhelming submissions from the media that the Human Rights Act  should be adjusted ( or recalibrated ) in favour of the media in relation to privacy.

In relation to the law of confidence and so-called super-injunctions , they recommend new and clearer legislation to ensuring the free reporting of parliament.

Under the “Libel” heading, the Committee rejects the idea of reversing the burden of proof in libel cases brought by individuals but suggests that, when corporations bring libel cases they should have the burden of proving falsity and/or rely on a claim in malicious falsehood.  In relation to “libel tourism” they recommend that more evidence is needed but suggested, in cases where the UK is not the primary domicile or place of business of the claimant or defendant, the claimant should face additional hurdles before being allowed to bring a case.  It is odd that they have ignored the views of Lord Hoffman

They also propose a year one limitation period for internet defamation cases.  They urge the Government to consult further, in particular over placing a broadened defence of ‘responsible journalism’ on a statutory footing.

On “Costs”, the Committee recommends that the recovery of success fees from the losing party should be limited to no more than 10%, and that After the Event Insurance premiums should be irrecoverable.

Under the heading of “Press Standards”, the Committee, unsuprisingly, concludes that in the case of the McCanns “self-regulation signally failed”.  In relation to the News of the World it “strongly condemns” the behaviour of the present and former of executives of News International

“which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred“.

In relation to Press the PCC should be renamed the Press Complaints and Standards Commission, reflecting its role as a regulator, not just a complaints handling service, and that it should appoint a deputy director for standards. They recommend that the PCC should have the power to fine its members where it believes that the departure from the Code of Practice is serious enough to warrant a financial penalty, including, in the most serious of cases, suspending the printing of the offending publication for one issue.

The devil is in the detail and whatever the conflicting views of different parts of the media (most of whom assert that they welcome the report as vindicating their position) it is essential to focus and distinguish between specific proposals for necessary changes in law and areas where there are concerns but more evidence is needed.  In future posts we will look at the arguments and recommendations on a number of specific issues.  Overall, the Committee has put in a lot of work and gathered some interesting and useful evidence but the whole is less than the sum of the parts and there is a clear risk that, like many of its predecessors, this report will quickly be forgotten, the good ideas disappearing with the bad.