LSE Media Policy Project: Leveson Inquiry Round Up – Damian Tambini

31 10 2011

The Leveson Inquiry is gathering pace, but civil society involvement remains problematic. A call for submissions was reiterated verbally at hearings this week. The call also features on the Inquiry website, but the website doesn’t issue a formal call for evidence with questions, nor is there a clear deadline.

From the Inquiry Website:

“The Inquiry would very much welcome submissions on the issues raised in the seminars. Please send any representations to rachel.clark@levesoninquiry.gsi.gov.uk

“All evidence papers can be sent to the Leveson Inquiry Team at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL or by email to Solicitor.LevesonInquiry@tsol.gsi.gov.uk

There are rumors of a November deadline for submissions. So as people consider what their position may be, it is worth reviewing the lay of the land after the first two months of the Inquiry.

One of the most significant movements so far is that Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has softened his staunch defence of press self-regulation. Whilst he claimed in his speech during a Leveson seminar that the PCC was not yet dead, he set out what in effect amounts to some basic guidelines for a co-regulatory structure: “while I abhor statutory controls, there’s one area where Parliament can help the press. Some way must be found to compel all newspaper owners to fund and participate in self-regulation”. Surely once newspapers are compelled to self regulate it is no longer self regulation.

And that was not all. In addition to Parliamentary backing for the PCC he acknowledged that the current structure whereby the PCC code is entirely owned by the industry is untenable. Thus he promised to open up the influential ‘code committee’ – which is responsible for revising the rule book for press journalists – to lay members, and called for a ombudsman with the power to fine all newspapers. He also promised a regular retractions column on a prominent page on his own newspaper.

The fact that a long term defender of pure self-regulation is prepared to contemplate co-regulation indicates that the terms of the debate have shifted fundamentally. Whilst the high level abstractions of self/co/statutory regulation themselves mean little; the mere mention of a role for Parliament would have been inconceivable a year ago.

The issue of how to compel the press to subscribe to self-regulation arises because of two issues: one is ‘the Richard Desmond problem’. People are now speaking openly about the problems that have arisen since the Desmond-owned Daily Express exited the self-regulatory system. The answer seems to be that Parliament should pass a law that obliges him to get back in line, by stipulating that all newspapers should be members.

But this may not be so simple. What, these days, is a newspaper? Hence the issue raised by David Currie and Shami Chakrabati during the discussion in the seminars: why single out newspapers? Should Parliament impose an uneven regulatory playing field at this delicate juncture for crisis hit news providers? Isn’t this a bit of a strange position to take in a convergent world?

The Lawyers have been giving this some thought. Former News International lawyer Andrew Chadwick and Hugh Tomlinson of Matrix Chambers and the Inforrm media law blog have been proposing Media Regulation Tribunals: This radical new proposal would roll in libel reform with reform of self-regulation to develop a pan-media tribunals system that would hear complaints relating to journalism, including PCC code issues, as well as defamation and privacy breaches, arguably relatively cheaply and quickly and with specialist expertise. Fiscal incentives could compel newspapers as well as other media to join the scheme. This is only a ‘bare bones’ proposal but because of the ‘Desmond problem’, and the problem of convergence, it is one the Inquiry should give full consideration to.

Former PCC member and outgoing chair of the Internet Watch Foundation Eve Salomon was more robust in her defence of self-regulation than many of the journalists present.

“Self-regulation, when it works, is far preferable to statutory regulation. Why? Because by its nature it suggests a willingness to comply rather than the begrudging obligation that so often comes with statutory regulation.”

Salomon advised the Inquiry to be pragmatic:

“if the press feels coerced into regulation it doesn’t want, it will rebel. And it will use the weapon most readily at hand, and which is not available to the regulator – the media: … don’t impose a new regulatory arrangement that doesn’t have the support of the press behind it . . . As to the future, I’d strongly advise working up an enhanced model of self-regulation, one that will give no doubt to the Richard Desmonds of the world that it is better to be in the self-regulatory tent than out. Statutory nudging would help, but the onus is largely on the industry itself to ensure that it supports and promotes its regulator. And the regulator must be and be seen to be far more independent than it currently is.

The devil is in the detail of course and we are yet to see what statutory nudges – to compel the press to self regulate – she has in mind. Whether it is for the Inquiry to bow to threats of press ‘rebellion’ rather than politicians is another matter.

Alan Rusbridger reminded everyone that the British Press is not totally, but only relatively free already, and also pointed out the problem of focusing only on newspapers as press is increasingly cross-platform. His contribution, so far, is long on the history of the press and the hacking scandal, but short on policy detail or proposals. The Guardian are working up more detailed proposals for reform of the PCC but for now the Editor seems content to keep his powder dry. The Guardian have been consistently concerned about privacy issues and have made detailed proposals to previous Parliamentary committee Inquiries on Privacy over the past decade.

The Carnegie Trust has issued a report on press regulation, which gives their answers to what they see as the key questions civil society should answer in this process. The report set out some broad principles, but not a regulatory template.

The Coordinating Committee for Media Reform is also working up detailed proposals. This group: (declaration of interest: I am a member) represents academic and civil society experts in the field and will be issuing a more detailed report in coming weeks.

The Leveson Inquiry is open to suggestions. Now is the time for civil society groups to think about some of the proposals on the table and come up with other ideas.

Follow Leveson events on the Media Policy Calendar or read up on previous thoughts on phone hacking, self-regulation and the Inquiry.

This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.


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