Battle Lines Drawn Over Use of Law to Regulate Press in Britain

Howard Lake - Final edition of News of the World (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Aidan White

The political battle over how to regulate Britain’s unruly newspaper industry has moved into another gear with the publication by the opposition Labour Party of a short press freedom and trust bill that claims to be a modest and common sense plan for an independent regulator of press standards.

Naturally, some government leaders and newspapers, including those accused of “wreaking unjustifiable havoc in people’s lives” by the Leveson Report published last month, don’t agree.

The ruling Conservative Party is against any law. Prime Minister David Cameron says the process of trying to draft a press law will highlight how difficult it is to try to legislate in this complex area. But his government coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the Labour opposition beg to differ.

Both groups are backing calls from Lord Justice Leveson as set out in his 2,000-page report for statutory underpinning of a new self-regulating press authority.

Labour has presented an eight-page piece of legislation which it claims will not weigh heavily on the press, but will ensure there is a legal guarantee that the new regulator will be effective and independent.

They propose to enshrine the freedom of the press in law, stating that ministers and anyone exercising a public function must uphold media freedom. This is in addition to maintaining existing individual rights to free expression under the Human Rights Act.

The radical feature of Labour’s proposals is for a panel of judges, led by the country’s lord chief justice, and also including some media experts sitting as independent “assessors,” to monitor the new regulator and make sure it is doing its job properly. This judicial recognition body would periodically review the work of the regulator every three years.

This option is not the preferred choice of Leveson, who proposed that the state broadcasting regulator Ofcom be given the task of verifying the newspaper regulator. But any role for Ofcom is almost certainly now off the agenda given that the Liberal Democrat leadership has also ruled it out.

The Labour Party wants the new regulator to cover every national newspaper circulating in the UK, and every news periodical with “substantial circulation” in the UK, and their online content. There is room for a small minority of owners to dissent, but Labour says the regulator, which it plans to call the Press Standards Trust, will need the majority of the news media to co-operate and abide by its decisions. Online commercial organisations such as the Huffington Post, could sign up, but are not be forced to do so.

As expected the Labour proposal contains both carrot and stick incentives for newspapers to co-operate. The legal recognition panel will advise the new Press Trust if it fails to meet expectations, but if the new regulator fails to shape up, the panel will be able to revoke recognition of the body.

Newspapers that sign up will be able to reap the benefits in court where they will be less liable to damages and costs, a key recommendation of the Leveson Report. Courts will also be able to take into account actions by newspapers that contact the regulator in advance of publication of a story, particularly to seek advice as to whether it should first a contentious story to an individual concerned.

But it is the proposal setting out criteria by which judges must test whether the trust is doing its job, where the new bill comes close to putting the new regulatory body into statutory form, something strongly opposed by most editors.

The new law would put into legal form the Leveson criteria by which the regulator will operate, including an industry-light board in which the majority, including the chairman, are independent of the press. This board would be appointed by an independent panel.

The new regulator will adopt a code to investigate complaints and will have the power to act on its own initiative as well the power to direct newspapers to publish a correction or an apology, and, if media refuse to do so it will have the legal muscle to impose significant financial sanctions.

Much of this is already broadly agreed by the newspaper industry, but there remains strong opposition to statutory oversight. Owners and editors insist this will open the door to state regulation.

Meanwhile, another proposed law has been announced to prevent the current Press Complaints Commission chairman, Lord Hunt, or any of his fellow members of Parliament from running the revamped newspaper regulator.

It has been introduced in the House of Lords by the Liberal democrat peer Lord Lester, who successfully campaigned for the introduction of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.

Lord Lester says his five-clause Independent Press Council Bill will hand control over the monitoring of a new press regulator to the president of the supreme court rather than the lord chief justice as Labour proposes. His plan bans legislators from playing a key role and arises because three of the five chairmen of the disgraced Press Complaints Commission have been Conservative peers.

Like Labour, he says newspapers that sign up to a new regulator will benefit from a wider public interest defence in libel and privacy actions – and lower costs and damages if found guilty.

Even as some of his peers are calling for him to be sacked, the current chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord David Hunt, is recruiting media leaders to support his efforts to prepare an industry-backed plan for a new regulator.

He has also announced that members of the public will be asked to make suggestions for a revised code of practice for journalists.

People have until 17 February to make suggestions for changes to the current code, which covers issues ranging from privacy and accuracy to guidelines on the use of subterfuge in the public interest. Anyone interested can write to [email protected] or the Editor’s Code Committee, PO Box 234, Stonehouse GL10 3UF, UK.

Photo Credit: Howard Lake – Final edition of News of the World (CC BY-SA 2.0)