Emma-Jane Tritton explains why it is necessary to back up a new press self-regulatory body with legislation.
Image courtesy of NS Newsflash at Flickr under a Creative Commons licence
The debate surrounding Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practice and ethics of the press since it was published last Thursday has mostly centred around whether the proposed new self-regulatory system for the press should be backed with legislation. While David Cameron and other prominent figures such as William Hague have expressed concerns about this recommendation and its potential effect on the freedom of speech, others such as Ed Miliband and the Hacked Off campaign have wholeheartedly embraced the suggestion, stating that it is necessary in order to help create the new, tougher, but still independent body.
It is vital to remember, as I noted last week, that Leveson does not want to jeopardise press freedom in any way and specifically noted in his report that ‘not a single witness has proposed that the Government or Parliament should be able to step in to prevent the publication of anything whatsoever’. Rather, he calls for the creation of a new ‘genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation’, but ‘it is essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes’. Expanding upon this, Leveson writes:
…the legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down. The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever. Nor would it give any rights to these entities to require newspapers to publish material except insofar as it would require the recognised self-regulatory body to have to the power to direct the placement and prominence of corrections and apologies in respect of information found, by that body, to require them.
The industry has had multiple chances to regulate itself and yet failed.
The most important thing in such a situation is the victim and the manner in which their complaint is addressed and resolved, which has been wholly unsatisfactory and which is in need of great reform. Of course, the act of phone hacking was and is illegal and further legislation would not have helped with this, but the problem lies with how the victims obtained redress following the publication of information obtained by such methods. I agree with Leveson in that legislation is needed to ensure victims’ complaints about their treatment at the hands of the press are heard and upheld.
It is therefore reasonable and logical to fear that once this particular Leveson-related furore has died down in a year or two, the press will revert to such tactics in order to generate stories…
Further included in Leveson’s package of recommendations was the provision of an arbitration service that is recognised and could be taken into account by the courts as an essential component of the system. Such a service would be cheaper and faster than resorting to litigation and would also provide an incentive for publishers to join the self-regulatory system in relation to legal costs:
…if, by declining to be a part of a regulatory system, a publisher has deprived a claimant of access to a quick, fair, low cost arbitration… the Civil Procedure Rules… could permit the court to deprive that publisher of its costs of litigation in privacy, defamation and other media cases, even if it had been successful. After all, its success could have been achieved far more cheaply for everyone.
In my opinion, such an arbitration scheme ought to be welcomed by the press as well as the public, as it offers a more flexible and cheaper alternative.
Newspapers have to be more accountable than ever before to their readers and the public. Legislation, as recommended by Leveson, would mean that a new self-regulatory system would be much more focused on resolving complaints and would also be able to deal with these complaints in a much more effective manner. In short, this legislation is essential in order to protect the legal right to privacy of those whose has been invaded.