This has been a dramatic week. Only yesterday the Government raised for the first time the prospect of a wide ranging independent inquiry into the conduct of newspapers in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. This followed the arrests of the chief reporter and a former senior executive of the NOTW on suspicion of conspiracy to intercept the mobile phone voicemails of public figures.
The Independent newspaper reported an escalation of “an extraordinary dispute” between Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and John Yates, the acting Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Mr Starmer had contradicted a statement by Mr Yates that legal advice from the Crown Prosecution Service restricted the number of victims of phone hacking to just a “handful of individuals”.
Former Conservative and Labour Cabinet ministers joined forces to demand action over the excesses identified at the NOTW and there have been calls for an inquiry by former Health Secretary Lord Fowler to consider the replacement of the Press Complaints Commission with a statutory body.
On Friday, BBC news announced that the News of the World is to admit liability in a number of cases brought against the paper for alleged phone hacking. According to the reports, News International has approached some claimants with an unreserved apology and will be establishing a substantial compensation fund to deal with justifiable claims efficiently. There are thought to be about 24 active cases including claims of breach of privacy by Sienna Miller, Tessa Jowell, football commentator Andy Gray, and the designer Kelly Hoppen.
News International has made a statement which accepts that
“past behaviour at the News of the World in relation to phone interception is a matter of genuine regret. It is now apparent that our previous enquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions were not sufficiently robust”.
News International says it will continue to co-operate with the Metropolitan Police inquiry.
A Government spokesman said yesterday that Ministers recognise the need to answer concerns about the failure to prevent the phone hacking scandal, indicating that an independent inquiry could be set up once criminal investigations are complete. He commented that
“the relationship between the press and the Government rests upon the idea that a free press in a democracy is free but should be responsible – just as bankers in a free market ask for light regulation with the expectation that they will also behave responsibly. Newspapers, like bankers, have not always been as responsible as they might have been in recent years”.
The prospect of an independent inquiry and possible statutory regulation of newspapers is to be welcomed. Self regulation has evidently failed as the phone hacking scandal has proved. There is a clear need for a statutory body with power to make sanctions against the media where privacy has been wrongly invaded or reputations wrongly trashed by the media. Moreover Government measures to curtail the use of Conditional Fee Agreements proposed recently will prevent ordinary people from getting access to justice and make it all the more difficult for these sort of issues to come to light. It must be remembered that it was the persistence of lawyers acting on CFA Agreements which substantially contributed to the scandal being exposed.
There must now be real potential for any further inquiry to usher in a new regulatory body. If that is the case it is hoped that this will provide a viable alternative to court.
The press has always resisted calls for external regulation. It is just possible that recent events will make that politically untenable. The danger,however, is that once the recent dramas have subsided, and the criminal investigations are concluded, the current appetite for statutory regulation will die down and instead we will see another voluntary body, possibly in the form of a newly constituted Press Complaints Commission with additional powers.