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The Leveson Report: What you need to know

IFEX lays out the main recommendations of the Leveson Report into the culture, practice and ethics of the U.K. press, and why some free expression advocates think they might constrain press freedom

Lord Justice Leveson unveils his report in London on 29 November 2012 following an inquiry into U.K. media practices
Lord Justice Leveson unveils his report in London on 29 November 2012 following an inquiry into U.K. media practices

REUTERS

By Alex Nunns

This story was updated on 21 December.

What is the Leveson Report?
The Leveson Report is the conclusion of an official inquiry by a senior British judge, Lord Justice Leveson, into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press." In the report, published on 29 November, Leveson recommends how the British press should be regulated.

Why did it come about?
The Leveson Inquiry was set up in summer 2011 as a result of the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid. The Guardian revealed many cases spanning several years where News of the World had "hacked" into the mobile phone voicemail messages of celebrities, politicians and members of the public. The most shocking example was Milly Dowler, the murdered 13-year-old girl whose voicemail had been accessed after she had been reported missing.

The phone-hacking scandal exposed a complex web of connections among three pillars of the British establishment: the press, the police and politicians. The police were under the spotlight for their apparent failure to thoroughly investigate phone hacking on previous occasions. Politicians became embroiled partly because of British Prime Minister David Cameron's association with former editors of News of the World, and also because of concerns over the issue of plurality and media ownership – News of the World was owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, which also owns the Times and the Sun. At the same time, Murdoch's News Corporation was awaiting approval to take full control of Britain's largest satellite TV broadcaster, BSkyB. The scandal fed in to a sense that the Murdoch media empire had too much power.

Cameron tasked Lord Justice Leveson to focus on the relationship between the press and the public, the press and the police, and the press and politicians.

What about broadcasters, and bloggers and other online journalists?
Broadcasters in the U.K. are already regulated, so they do not figure in Leveson's report. Online forms of journalism such as blogs and Twitter are not regulated and, according to Leveson, are the "elephant in the room." Leveson does not look in to these areas very closely in his report but believes they exist in an "ethical vacuum".


What does Leveson recommend?

Leveson makes a large number of recommendations in his 1,987-page tome, but the most significant concern the regulation of the press. Up until now, the British press has not been specially licensed or regulated by the state. Newspapers are answerable to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a voluntary industry body that has often been criticised as toothless. Leveson judges the PCC to have failed.

In its place, Leveson proposes a new press standards body. It would deal with complaints against newspapers via a cheap and easy arbitration process, so that people who feel they have been wronged by the press can get justice without having to go to court. The new body would be able to fine newspapers up to 1 million pounds (US$1.6 million) if it found they had acted badly. It would also promote high standards and encourage transparency.

Leveson says this organisation must be independent of both the government and the press, but must be backed by law. He recommends some kind of "verifying" body to check every two or three years that it's doing its job properly.

Leveson's other recommendations, on the relationship between the press and the police and politicians, are less significant. Although he thinks politicians have been "too close" to the press, he does not think crucial decisions by government ministers have been biased. He sees no evidence of corruption in the police. On media plurality and the power of "press barons" like Rupert Murdoch, Leveson is cautious, saying the mechanism for ensuring media plurality is a "technical issue on which the inquiry is not best placed to reach a definitive conclusion."

How have free expression groups reacted?
There has been a mixed reaction to the Leveson Report. On the positive side, most free expression groups welcome the idea of a quick and cheap arbitration system, including Index on Censorship and the International Press Institute (IPI). Reporters Without Borders (RSF), however, warns that the possibility of 1 million pound fines for newspapers "is a cause of great concern and must by ruled out at all costs."

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) welcomes Leveson's call for a "conscience clause" to be included in journalists' contracts – meaning journalists would not face disciplinary action if they refuse to do things they consider unethical. The proposal was originally put to the inquiry by the U.K. National Union of Journalists.

Why has the report drawn mixed reactions from free expression groups?
The issue that has most divided opinion is Leveson's insistence that it is "essential" for parliament to pass a new law giving authority to a new press standards body. No free expression groups favour state regulation of the press – the difference is whether they consider that Leveson's proposals constitute state regulation.

Leveson denies that they do, insisting that the press would remain "self-governing." But because participation in the new body would be voluntary, there would have to be incentives for news organisations to join, such as lower levels of high court damages and costs. Leveson says a law is needed to "recognise" the new body, which would enable these incentives.

There is limited support for this reasoning among free expression advocates. ARTICLE 19 welcomes Leveson's report, saying it "may offer a new vision for press accountability in the 21st century." Agnès Callamard of ARTICLE 19 tells IFEX that her organisation accepts the "clear distinction" that Leveson makes between a law that regulates the press, which ARTICLE 19 "fiercely opposes," and a law that "underpins" self-regulation. According to Callamard, "too many people have sought to blur this line," which has "polarised a complicated issue."

Leveson's recommendations, Callamard says, "provide a legal basis to self-regulation, not state regulation." ARTICLE 19 "always prefers self-regulation," which "can and should be achieved without legislation." But statutory underpinning "could be allowed in international law" and is "in line with international free speech standards." The issue for Callamard is the specific nature of the proposed law, which ARTICLE 19 will "review carefully… to determine whether it carries any risks for freedom of the press."

But other free expression organisations disagree. Index on Censorship believes "statutory underpinning of an 'independent' and 'voluntary' regulator is a contradiction in terms." Pam Cowburn of Index argues that Leveson's goals can be achieved "without recourse to law. His incentives for an arbitration service, for example, could be brought about by a change in court procedure rather than a new law." As for Leveson's distinction between state regulation and state "underpinning," Cowburn says, "Either the press is free of state intervention or it is not. Even 'light' statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached."

These fears have been echoed by IPI and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ executive director Joel Simon warns that statutory regulation would "give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls."

Possibly in an attempt to offset these worries, Leveson also proposes that the new law should include a legal duty for the government to protect press freedom for the first time in the U.K. But while Callamard says ARTICLE 19 supports "a constitutional mechanism that would provide a guarantee for the protection of freedom of expression… in its fullest sense," Index on Censorship sees it differently. "Giving the government a legal duty to protect the freedom of the press suggests that it is also responsible for defining what a free press is," says Index's Cowburn. "It is actually the reverse of the U.S. First Amendment, which protects the press from laws rather than protecting the press through laws."

Will the recommendations be implemented?
Cameron previously said he would implement Leveson's proposals provided they were not "bonkers." But he has since had a change of heart. While the Prime Minister and the ruling Conservative Party are in agreement with most of Leveson's recommendations, they are not in favour of having statutory backup for the new regulating body.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats, who are in a coalition government with the Conservatives, and the opposition Labour Party, want to see the Leveson report implemented in full. The issue will be debated in parliament and negotiated between the parties, and it is not yet clear how it will be resolved.

Meanwhile, British newspapers, which are broadly hostile to statutory regulation, met and speedily agreed to a code enshrining most of Leveson's recommendations, including the creation of a new regulator that could levy fines and operate the arbitration system. But they reject the statutory element.

This has placed the press and the Prime Minister in opposition to most victims of phone hacking and the campaign group Hacked Off, whose broad support among the public has been shown by the rapid collection of over 146,000 signatures to a petition for the full implementation of the Leveson Report.

Alex Nunns is a writer and activist in London, U.K. He co-edited Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt's revolution as it unfolded, in the words of the people who made it, the first book to use tweets to tell the story of a historical event. He is also the political correspondent for the U.K. political magazine Red Pepper.

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