Human Rights House Foundation

United Kingdom

Image: Lord Justice Leveson 
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UK: Leveson Inquiry Report welcomed and criticized

On 29 November 2012 Lord Justice Leveson issued a report on how the press should be reformed in the UK. Free speech organisations welcome the proposal for swift and low cost dispute resolution. However they express serious concerns about the incentive to create an “independent” press regulator underpinned by legislation.

Sunday, 02 December 2012, by HRH London, based on Index on Censorship, English Pen, Article 19, Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists information.

Human Rights House believes there will be many opinions and statements in coming days over the 2,000 page report, but some key elements are clear and have already stimulated broad discussions.

Cheap and effective arbitration needed
In his report Leveson acknowledged the importance of regulation that is independent of government, politicians and industry and proposed for there to be a positive duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press.

Leveson’s proposal for a cheap, effective arbitration service is one that ARTICLE 19, English PEN and Index on Censorship welcome — this can benefit both complainants and publishers in ensuring complaints can be dealt with swiftly, fairly, and without great costs. Swift, fair arbitration in this way can deal with those cases where the media is, or is felt to be, impervious to complaints.

Index on Censorship says that a much stronger standards arm, fines, and more independent figures on the regulator’s board can all act — as Leveson and the party leaders agree — to transform the behaviour of those parts of the press whose behaviour Leveson castigates in his report.

“Journalists and other citizens must respect the law insofar as it protects freedom of information,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general, Christophe Deloire. “Where ethics are concerned, self-regulation by the media is the preferred option. We believe that the illegal activities noted by Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry should not undermine that fundamental principle.“

Reporters Without Borders underline that now that the report is published, it is time for dialogue to begin. Journalists and free speech campaigners must be at the heart of the consultation process. No system of media regulation can be effective without the consent of those who work in the sector.

According to the Index on Censorship, a combination of effective application of existing laws with a stronger independent regulator – set up without any statute or parliamentary vote — can provide the framework for genuine press freedom to be upheld in the UK and to ensure there are higher media standards, better governance, and greater protection for individuals from criminal, inappropriate and unjustified media behaviour.

English PEN also welcomes Lord Justice Leveson’s endorsement of a ‘conscience clause’ for journalists, so that they would not be compelled by editors or owners to do things that are unethical.

“A conscience clause would be an important safeguard of a journalist’s right to self-expression,” says Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN.

Leveson's recommendation - statutory regulation
Despite positive words and acknowledgments in the report, UK-based free speech campaigners have serious concerns about the incentives that are at the heart of his proposals, which are underpinned by legislation.

ARTICLE 19 warns the UK government that any law requiring self-regulation must absolutely protect the independence of the press and must not be abused to undermine freedom and diversity. The organisation says that the model proposed by Lord Justice Leveson is new and untested. It may offer a new vision for press accountability in the twenty first century. It must be further analysed and discussed.

Statutory regulation, or underpinning in the jargon, of an “independent” press regulator is Leveson’s core recommendation. If it happened, this would mean a specific law would set out aspects of control of the press for the first time in over 300 years, warns Index on Censorship. The NGO is strongly opposed to any such statutory involvement in press regulation.

Leveson’s report sets out in great detail the characteristics and criteria that the new regulator should meet. It also suggests that a “recognition body” would assess and “certify” that the regulator met these criteria — with Ofcom (Independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) suggested as the best organisation to be this recognition body.

MPs would vote into law these criteria, and would vote into law the process by which an “independent” appointments panel would select the chair and board of the regulator (which would exclude any current editor).

Index on Censorship emphasizes that such politicisation of press control would be a major breach of the principles of freedom of expression and a free press.

"There are fundamental reasons why politicians and media should be distinct from and independent of each other. The cronyism between media, police and politicians, exposed in part in the Leveson Inquiry, is not a reason to establish a sort of “reverse cronyism” whereby media would risk being pressurised by government and other politicians,“ Index states.

Risk of potential government control
As Leveson indicated himself, the media has a vital role to play in monitoring and reporting the political scene, challenging and criticising and holding to account those in power.

If journalists cannot do this robustly and without fear of interference or other political consequences, press freedom is constrained. Beyond this, even “light” statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

The fact that, in Leveson’s recommendations, it is left as “voluntary” for news publishers to decide to join does not mitigate the fact that all those who do join are part of a statutorily-established process.

"A media regulatory body anchored by statute cannot be described as voluntary," said Committee to Protect Journalists Executive Director, Joel Simon.

The Report states that the press regulator should only be recognised as effective if “all significant news publishers” join. So if one major news outlet doesn’t join, the regulator is deemed unacceptable. In that case, all “significant” news publishers would be part of the statutorily-established system.

Reporters Without Borders warns that if the UK chooses such a system, the utmost care must be taken to prevent potential abuse that could lead to state control of the media. Free speech campaigners should judge the composition and powers of the new institution, and how its members are appointed, in the light of its ability to avoid this risk.

Threat to set unapropriate precedent
As Levenson evaluates himself, in view of the international reputation of Britain’s media, the government has a responsibility not only to the British people, but also to the rest of the world. "Any movement towards state control would be seen as detrimental to a UK free press and would send out the wrong message to authoritarian governments. We shall be closely watching the conclusions of this debate.“

Joel Simon repeats his thought claiming that the adoption of statutory regulation would undermine press freedom in the UK and give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls.

Index on Censorship believes that if MPs first vote on the detailed statute that sets up the panel and the criteria for the regulator, then this proposal threatens press freedom in the UK and the Prime Minister David Cameron must remain resolute in his opposition to this.

Background information
The commission of inquiry headed by Lord Justice Brian Leveson issued its report on 29 November, after an eight-month public investigation into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.

The inquiry was launched following the revelation that journalists working for the British tabloid News of the World hacked into private telephones. The report proposes the creation of a new independent body, backed by legislation, to regulate the press. Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his opposition to statutory control.

In March 2012, English PEN and Index on Censorship published ‘The Alternative Libel Project’ which analysed alternative dispute resolution models and made recommendations for libel disputes.

HRH London, based on Index on Censorship, English Pen, Article 19, Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists information.

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