POLITICIANS, campaigners and media executives were divided last night over Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for reform of the press.
After an inquiry into press standards lasting more than a year, the Appeal Court judge called for the establishment of a muscular new independent regulatory body, backed by legislation, with the power to require prominent apologies and impose fines of as much as £1m.
The recommendations exposed deep divisions within the Government.
Prime Minister David Cameron voiced “serious concerns and misgivings” about legislative action, and said the press should be given “a limited period of time” to show it could get its house in order. But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he believed Leveson’s model could be “proportionate and workable” and insisted Parliament should push ahead without delay.
Labour leader Ed Miliband urged MPs to “have faith” in Leveson and said he would move for a vote in the Commons by the end of January to approve Leveson’s proposals, with the aim of getting the new system in place by 2015.
Lord Justice Leveson’s 16-month inquiry was prompted by the disclosure that News of the World journalists hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and his 2,400-page report pulled no punches in condemning the behaviour of elements within the newspaper industry.
The press had repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”, he said.
He left no doubt that the existing model of voluntary self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission had failed, and rejected proposals for a beefed-up regulator put forward by industry figures.
Crucially, he said that a new regulatory body should be given legal under-pinning, with statutory regulator Ofcom given the responsibility of certifying it complies with legislation.
Victims of press intrusion broadly welcomed Lord Leveson’s proposals, and voiced dismay at Mr Cameron’s stance.
Solicitor Mark Lewis, who represents the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, said the PM had failed the victims of phone hacking.
“Cautious optimism lasted for about 45 minutes and then the Prime Minister spoke and said he is not going to implement a report that he instigated,” he said.
Lord Leveson heavily criticised politicians for becoming too cosy with the media, but cleared Mr Cameron of doing a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News International of policy favours in return for positive coverage. And he said there was no credible evidence that Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt was biased in favour of Mr Murdoch over his bid to take over BSkyB, though he failed properly to supervise an adviser who got too close to lobbyists.
The judge blamed a “series of poor decisions, poorly executed”
by the Metropolitan Police for contributing to perceptions that officers were initially reluctant to investigate phone hacking. But he said he had seen no reason to doubt the integrity of the police and senior officers concerned.
Presenting his report, Lord Justice Leveson insisted that what he was recommending did not amount to statutory regulation of the press.
“What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press, organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership,” he said.
Highlighting the Dowler case, Lord Justice Leveson said: “There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected (perhaps in a way that can never be remedied) all the while heedless of the public interest.”
In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Cameron told MPs he welcomed plans for a new self-regulatory body, and said the onus was on the press to implement them. But he voiced “serious concerns and misgivings”
about Lord Leveson’s judgment that the scheme required legislative underpinning.
“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press,” said the Prime Minister. “In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”