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News: Tom Watson MP, Second Annual Leveson Lecture; Unfinished Business – Tamsin Turk

Tom-WatsonOn 3 December 2014, at the invitation of the campaigning group Hacked Off, Tom Watson MP gave the Second Annual Leveson Lecture, to a large audience in Westminster.

He began by saying that the Leveson Inquiry was an historic landmark which exposed that a small group of national newspapers had habitually engaged in unethical and illegal practices.

It was, he said, a self-propagated myth that such companies were dedicated to holding power to account through journalism. They were powerful of themselves and had been able to ‘fix’ legislation that affected them, in a way that no other industry could.

Press Regulation

Leveson had recommended self-regulation, noting that there was no body of opinion calling for the censorship of British journalism or for state controls. Every party in Parliament had given its independent support to the Royal Charter implementing those recommendations.

The result had been the creation of The Press Recognition Panel, a uniquely independent public body. Its purpose is to assess whether news publishers’ self-regulatory bodies meet the basic standards of independence and effectiveness and to “recognise” compliant bodies as “approved” self-regulators.

Tom Watson said that the Crime and Courts Act 2013, Section 40 represents an historic new protection for freedom of the press. Pursuant to that provision, a Claimant to a media tort claim would likely bear the costs of that claim (irrespective of whether that claim was successful) if they refused to go to arbitration with a news publisher who was a member of an approved regulator. Conversely, a news publisher who was not a member of an approved regulator would likely find itself liable for the entire costs of a media tort claim, irrespective of the success or otherwise of that claim. However, Section 40(6) provides that Section 40 will not apply until such time as a body is first recognised as an approved regulator.

IPSO has made no application to The Press Recognition Panel for recognition as an approved regulator

IMPRESS with Walter Merricks CBE as Chair is taking shape and represents an alternative press self-regulator to IPSO. If IMPRESS were to apply for recognition, it would change the regulatory landscape.

However, the Crime and Courts Act 2013, Section 34 also provides a framework under which regulatory bodies that are not recognised may be liable from November 2015 for exemplary damages.

Recent legal proceedings

A series of trials had revealed evidence of a good number of unethical and illegal practices not exposed by Leveson and in a few cases, firmly denied before that Inquiry. An example included, witness evidence that senior journalists thought paying the Police for tip-offs was covered by the PPC Code (see lecture for further examples).

Many newspapers had provided scant reporting of these events but had reported extensively on acquittals.

“Leveson Part 2”

The full terms of reference approved by Parliament for the Leveson Inquiry required further investigation of all the things that could not then be reviewed while prosecutions were pending. “Leveson 2” would provide the opportunity for more extensive scrutiny of the relationship between the Police and the British news media, which was not the main focus of the initial investigation.

Areas for future parliamentary consideration

Tom Watson identified four main areas:

  1. All political parties to comply with the Leveson recommendations concerning their members’ contact with senior journalists, editors and proprietors.
  2. Ensure real plurality in the British news media with no market dominance that denies the public that plurality.
  3. Protect the freedoms that true public interest journalism requires to promote democracy. For example, safeguarding the European Convention on Human Rights, amending the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (to safeguard journalists’ sources as per the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) and bolster obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for more timely disclosure of information.
  4. Fulfill assurances given to victims concerning press self-regulation, including manifesto commitment to take action on any ‘Failure Report’ produced by the Press Recognition Panel.

In conclusion, Tom Watson called for editors and proprietors to take note of public opinion. He said that standards of British journalism would be restored and that

…as Lord Justice Leveson showed, this can and will be done while at the same time freedom of expression in this country is enhanced.

Tamsin Turk is a Media Solicitor

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