Crunch-time on Future of UK Press Regulation

This feature article on media ethics is written by Barry White, the EFJ Steering Committee member from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK and Ireland. The Leveson Inquiry is a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British media following the phone-hacking scandal in the UK. The inquiry was chaired by Lord Leveson who have held a series of public hearings throughout 2011 and 2012. The EFJ affiliate, NUJ was asked to submit its opinon on the inquiry.

It's now almost three months since the Leveson Inquiry published its findings on Culture, Practices and Ethics in the Press and the British government and national press are fighting hard to stop the main recommendations of the report dealing with press regulation from being implemented.

When Lord Justice Leveson presented his 1,987 page report on 29 November 2012, he emphasised that "this was the seventh time in less than 70 years (that) a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press...No-one can think that it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth."

Currently the arguments (most of them behind closed doors with accompanying news back-outs) are about Leveson's call that legislation was "essential" to give statutory backing to a new self-regulatory system to be set up by the media industry.

Leveson saw this as a move to guarantee the freedom and independence of the press by law. He called for an independent self-regulatory body governed by an independent board, the members of which "must be appointed in a genuinely open, transparent and independent way, free from government and industry interference, with no powers to prevent publication."

In parliament, the proposals were rejected by Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the industry to act quickly and get something plausible operating quickly. He also agreed to ‘cross party' talks on the question. Currently the outcome seems deadlocked with much of the press still shouting from the rooftops that the Leveson proposals will "muzzle the press" and "silence newspapers". They even go so far as to claim that it represents "state regulation of the press". Their campaign has been described by former Tory minister Lord Norman Fowler as;  " of the most disreputable campaigns seen in the country for a long time - made even worse as it has been done in the name of press freedom."

It has even been suggested by the Conservative Party that a royal charter is the alternative to Leveson's proposals. It's a very ‘British solution' and a very bad idea. A royal charter is an antiquated and undemocratic process and in any event would require legislation to make it work.

Meanwhile questions about cutting big media down to size, by putting limits on ownership have been sidelined. So has discussion about some NUJ concerns about other recommendations in the report such as future protecting of sources, data protection, relations with the police and possible changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which would give the police more power to gain access to journalistic material. The NUJ is also seeking support for the creation of a conscience clause for journalists, one of the positive recommendations from the report.

It has been left to the un-elected House of Lords to act. In early February they passed an amendment to the defamation bill to introduce a low-cost arbitration system for victims of press defamation. Newspapers that did not join the system would face higher damages if they were found to have defamed litigants. In addition, the bill also includes a skeleton system of press regulation, against the wishes of the government. It will be decision time for the government when this bill goes to the House of Commons for consideration.

However, the future of both press regulation and the defamation bill could be decided shortly as the government puts forward its proposals for a Royal Charter to recognise the new press regulator.

The Royal Charter plan was announced on 12 February and was followed by all-party talks in parliament. The press industry is then expected to issue its response by the end of February.

For updates go to the NUJ web site or the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.