Press reformers back Leveson's call for independent scrutiny

By staff writers
30 Nov 2012

The Leveson inquiry reveals the need to shine an independent light on the workings of the newspaper industry, say respondents to the new report on press standards.

The long-awaited investigation and recommendations on the culture, practice and ethics of the press from Lord Leveson was finally published yesterday (29 November 2012).

The lengthy inquiry was occasioned by accusations of illegal phone hacking by News International and others, subsequently verified. Over 90 criminal proceedings are currently in process.

But the Leveson hearings have exposed a much wider culture of abuse, malpractice, bullying and lack of accountability within the newspaper industry, say commentators and critics.

Prime Minister David Cameron, Conservative MPs, media barons and tabloid pundits immediately weighed in yesterday to oppose independent scrutiny of the press supported by back-stop statutory provision.

Some newspapers and politicians began waging a campaign of insinuation against the Leveson report's expected call for change well before it was published.

They have been suggesting that anything other than self-regulation would amount to a wedge for state control - a claim proponents of independent scrutiny say is misleading and inaccurate.

Reformers have generally welcomed the inquiry's findings, while saying that they need more time to study the fine detail of a lengthy, detailed document.

The Media Reform coalition, which "coordinates the work of advocacy groups campaigning to protect the public interest in light of the Leveson Inquiry and Communications Review" was among the first to back its findings, while pointing out the lack of necessary attention to ownership and diversity issued.

Harold Evans, a senior media figure who has edited daily papers in both Britain and the US, wrote in the Gaurdian: "Most of us who have been involved in investigative journalism in the public interest for many years will find it hard to fault what [Leveson] says, either about the imperative of reform or the futility of once again accepting on trust promises from the worst of the press, its editors and its owners."

Peter Facey, director of the political reform group Unlock Democracy, commented: “The Leveson Inquiry painted a picture of scandals upon scandals, shedding light not just on the failings of the current system of media self-regulation, but on the extent to which major media corporations invest their time and money secretly lobbying politicians. Without the inquiry, the scurrilous relationship between Jeremy Hunt, David Cameron and NewsCorp would have never come to light.

“But it shouldn’t take special inquiries to open up secret lobbying to public scrutiny. We desperately need a statutory lobbying register to ensure we have a better idea of what is going on at the time it is happening rather than years after the event," he continued.

“Leveson has shown us that the present means of media self-regulation are woefully inadequate. We welcome Lord Leveson’s call for the freedom of the press to be enshrined in UK law; how this can work in practice in tandem with a statutory underpinning of media regulation is a matter of further debate. The pressure is on the media to prove that that individual rights will not be ignored under self-regulation - not just over the next few months, but long after the furore has died down,” said Mr Facey.

Jacqui Hames, a former policewoman and BBC Crimewatch presenter who was placed under surveillance by the News of the World in 2002, welcomed "this carefully prepared and thorough report" on behalf of victims of press abuse and the Hacked Off campaign for a free and accountable press.

"The Judge has rightly condemned the outrageous conduct of the press in the recent years," she said. "The crucial point is the importance he places on the complete independence of regulation from politicians and from the editors and proprietors, who run the wholly discredited Press Complaints Commission.

"[Lord Leveson] has proposed a system of voluntary and independent self-regulation.The proposals made by the industry do not come close to this ideal. What is needed is a regulator which can properly and effectively protect the victims of press misconduct.

"He has recommended that this be backed by legislation to protect the public and the press. These proposals are reasonable and proportionate and we call on all parties to get together to implement them as soon as possible."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, said: "Leveson’s key recommendation offers at least part of the way forward. A civic regulatory body and code of conduct that is independent of both government and owners, underpinned by statute, and framed within a First Amendment-style law to protect the freedom of the press, is long overdue. This is in no way an example of, or precursor to, ‘state control’, as some have been trying to insinuate.

"The absence of concrete attention to newspaper ownership, and recommendations to address it, is surely the largest weakness of the new report. An over-concentration of corporate power and wealth within the press is the biggest single threat to a diverse, healthy, accountable and democratic industry. Setting up independent newspaper trusts, along with tough restrictions on monopolies, would be an important way forward in this area," he added.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) says it is pleased that the union’s long standing campaign for a conscience clause has been supported by Lord Justice Leveson.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, explained: “From the outset of the Leveson inquiry, we demanded a conscience clause to safeguard journalists who object to being made to act unethically in the pursuit of a story.

“The union will now do all it can to ensure that when journalists stand up for a principle of journalistic ethics they have a contractual protection against being dismissed.

“Now is the time to build a solid framework that gives journalists the confidence and the security to put their head above the parapet and take a stand for ethical journalism.

“Journalists should always have the right to refuse assignments that contravene their ethical code; no journalists should be disciplined or suffer detriment to their careers for asserting their right to act ethically.

“The new independent self-regulatory body should ensure that journalists’ contracts include a conscience clause.

“The NUJ welcomes Lord Justice Leveson’s support for a free press and independent regulation of the press - independent of both government and of the industry.

“We’re also pleased that the recommendations include civic society involvement and the recommendation that the new body needs an independent chair and board appointed in a fair and transparent process," said Ms Stanistreet.

The NUJ also expressed disappointment that issues of ownership and plurality are not addressed in the inquiry report. The union has fiercely denounced false accusations that it supports state regulation.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has given a positive response to the Leveson report, pointing out differences in application north of the border.

Patrick Harvie, MSP for Glasgow and co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, commented: "Scotland has a proud tradition of journalism but the industry's self-regulation has clearly failed and we can't duck the issue any longer. It would be quite bizarre for a pro-independence Government to leave this to Westminster. The Leveson report demands action to restore public trust and I believe the Scottish Parliament should use its powers in this area.

He said: "This is a real opportunity to ensure that regulation is truly independent from corporate control, and protects essential freedoms, roots out bad journalism and properly protects people's privacy."

The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) declared yesterday: "The [negative] reaction of the Prime Minister just confirms the persistence of the malady that led to the inquiry in the first place. David Cameron is the prisoner of the newspaper owners and editors who have ramped up a deranged campaign of attack on any suggestion of serious regulation."

* The Leveson Inquiry report and recommendations on the culture, practice and ethics of the press can be read in full and in executive summary here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/the-report/

* 'Leveson, the press, and un-free corporate interests', by Simon Barrow: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17496

* Media Reform Coalition: http://www.mediareform.org.uk/

* Hacked Off petition calling for implementation of the inquiry recommendations: http://hackinginquiry.org/petition

* NUJ on Leveson: http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=2453

* Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom: http://www.cpbf.org.uk/

* Unlock Democracy: http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/

[Ekk/3]

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