I have been heartened that lawyers with experience in this area of law are beginning to voice their objection to how Leveson’s proposals are being mischaracterised by the national press. Sir Edward Garnier QC, the former Conservative solicitor general, and media barrister from One Brick Court, said the following in Parliament: “We are not talking about the statutory control of the press. Can we try and move away from the hyperbole and exaggeration which seems to suggest Lord Justice Leveson is demanding some Stalinistic control of the press?”
Similarly, in an excellent letter published in the Evening Standard (credit to them for doing so), Owen O’Rorke of M Law expresses his fury at what he describes as “disingenuous” reporting. He states:
“In much of the commentary on Leveson, “statutory regulation” has been used synonymously with “state control”, with any other description (“backstop”, “underpinning”) dismissed as sophistry. Exploiting the similarity in sound between “statute” and “state” is disingenuous scaremongering, like repeatedly referring to the US President as “Barrack Hussein Obama”. Statute forms the basis for all our freedoms and does not represent anything undemocratic – quite the reverse.”
I am sure that Messrs Garnier and O’Rorke are not alone in their views. To my mind Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations demonstrate an acute awareness of the need to avoid a system of statutory regulation. The legislation he does suggest has a discreet remit, including provisions to protect press freedom. It would not establish a statutory regulator.
Lord Justice Leveson himself warned against his recommendations being wrongly labelled in his speech upon the publication of his report:
“This is not, and cannot reasonably or fairly be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. I am proposing independent regulation of the press organised by the press itself with a statutory process to support press freedom, provide stability and guarantee for the public that this new body is independent and effective.
I firmly believe that these recommendations for self-regulation are in the best interests of the public and the press; they have not been influenced by any political or other agenda but solely by what I believe is fair and right for everyone. What is more, given the public interest role of which the press is rightly proud, I do not think that either the victims I have heard from, or the public in general, would accept anything less”.
Nevertheless the Prime Minister, who had more time than anyone to study the report in advance of the first Parliamentary debate, expressed how he is “instinctively concerned” about legislation creating “a vehicle for politicians to impose regulations on the press” and is said to be seeking a way of creating a system following Leveson’s principles without legislation. Rumours are that the Conservatives in the Government wish to demonstrate that the legislation Leveson suggests is unworkable.
My firm view is that his recommendations are workable and that without legislation providing independent verification the public cannot have confidence that any system created by the press is not open to manipulation in the press’ interests. Furthermore I fail to see how the system of incentives can work without legislation. The argument that we are crossing the Rubicon in creating any legislation relating to the regulation of the press has been dismissed by many, not least by Natalie Fenton on Inforrm. The legislation Leveson envisages would be no more attractive a bridge over the Rubicon for the mythical press-bashing Government of the future than the current laws relating to contempt, data protection or libel.
For these reasons I will be putting my name to the below statement from media lawyers who support Leveson’s recommendation. I would encourage others to do the same by emailing confirmation of your support to firstname.lastname@example.org. This list will then be published along with the statement below:
“As media lawyers we, the undersigned, support Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for press regulation. Furthermore we agree that it is a workable and practical solution to a serious and long-standing problem.
The Prime Minister’s concern about the requirement for legislation is misplaced. Leveson’s recommendation cannot be characterised as “crossing the Rubicon” towards Government interference with the press. The press are already the subject of extensive legislation. The legislation that is essential to Leveson’s recommendations holds benefits for both the press and the public: i) it would enshrine the importance of the freedom of the press ii) it would provide an independent process to recognise the self-regulatory body to be established by the press and iii) validate its standards code and arbitral arm. It is not a complex proposal.
We agree with Lord Justice Leveson that his proposal cannot be characterised as statutory regulation. We also agree that without legislation, the recommendations cannot be properly implemented and to attempt to do so would be to turn a blind eye to the evidence within the Inquiry and the 7 previous investigations into press conduct.”
Dominic Crossley is a Partner and Head of Defamation and Reputation Management at Collyer Bristow LLP. He represented the Core Participant Victims at the Leveson Inquiry.