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After the Leveson Report: What you need to know

Britain looks set to regulate its press by a "royal charter". With the new proposals dividing the politicians and the press, IFEX traces the story from phone-hacking to the current controversy, and explains why some free expression advocates think press freedom is under threat

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on 18 March 2013, the day after agreeing to a new system of press regulation
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on 18 March 2013, the day after agreeing to a new system of press regulation

Luke MacGregor/REUTERS

Why has press regulation become a big issue in the U.K.?

The plan to regulate the British press by a royal charter has its roots in the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid. In 2011 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.

What is the Leveson Report?

At the height of the scandal in summer 2011, Cameron tasked a senior British judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to look into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press," as well as the relationship between the press and the public, the press and the police, and the press and politicians. This was known as the Leveson Inquiry and involved high-profile public evidence sessions. The judge's conclusions on how the British press should be regulated were published as the Leveson Report in November 2012.

What did Leveson recommend?

Leveson made a large number of recommendations in his 1,987-page tome, but the most significant concerned 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 judged the PCC to have failed. (Broadcasters in the U.K. are already regulated, so they did not figure in Leveson's report.)

In place of the PCC, Leveson proposed 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's other recommendations, on the relationship between the press, the police and politicians are less significant. Although he said politicians were "too close" to the press, he did not think crucial decisions by government ministers were biased. He saw no evidence of corruption in the police. On media plurality and the power of "press barons" like Rupert Murdoch, Leveson was 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."

Why did the report draw mixed reactions from free expression groups?

The issue that most divided opinion was 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 was over whether Leveson's proposals constituted state regulation.

Leveson denied that they did, 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 said a law would be needed to "recognise" the new body, which would enable these incentives.

There was limited support for this reasoning among free expression advocates. ARTICLE 19 welcomed Leveson's report. Agnès Callamard of ARTICLE 19 told IFEX that her organisation accepted the "clear distinction" that Leveson made 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 said, "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."

But other free expression organisations disagreed. Pam Cowburn of Index on Censorship argued that Leveson's goals could 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 said, "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 were echoed by the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ executive director Joel Simon warned that statutory regulation would "give legitimacy to governments around the world that routinely silence journalists through such controls."

How are the recommendations being implemented?

When the Leveson Inquiry was set up Cameron said he would implement its proposals provided they were not "bonkers." But he then had a change of heart, publicly opposing the idea of statutory backup for the new regulating body. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats, Cameron's coalition partners in government, sided with the opposition Labour Party in calling for the Leveson Report to be implemented in full. Together the Liberal Democrats and Labour have a majority in Parliament, although it is unusual for a governing party to vote with the opposition.

Facing this parliamentary arithmetic, and under pressure from the campaign group Hacked Off, which includes the victims of phone hacking and celebrities like Hugh Grant, Cameron was forced to change his position. Late night negotiations on 17 March resulted in a compromise. Instead of the press regulation law envisaged by Leveson, politicians agreed to use an arcane constitutional mechanism to establish a new regulator: a royal charter.

Royal charters are granted directly by the Queen without reference to Parliament. They are traditionally used to found bodies like universities and the BBC. The politicians decided to employ a royal charter to found the verifying, or “recognising” body, whose job will be to officially recognise a press standards organisation which they hope will be voluntarily set up by the press itself. The device of using a royal charter has allowed Cameron to claim that this is not statutory regulation.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Hacked Off conceded that the new body could be formed by royal charter, but insisted that it be backed by law. Consequently, what Cameron calls “two very important but relatively small” changes to the law are being pushed through – one making it possible to impose “exemplary damages” on news organisations that lose court cases if they have not joined the new regulator; and the other specifying that a royal charter can only be altered by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Index on Censorship described this as a “sad day” for the British press and said there is “no doubt” that the deal constitutes statutory underpinning. Most media outlets agree. Two magazines, the conservative Spectator and the satirical/investigative Private Eye, have declared that they will not sign up to the new regulator. Associated Newspapers (Daily Mail), News International (Sun) and the Telegraph Media Group are looking at the possibility of establishing a breakaway press complaints body. But other outlets, including the Guardian, may agree to the royal charter scheme.

How this will work in practice remains unclear. The royal charter defines web-based news outlets very loosely, raising fears for bloggers. Exemplary damages, giving the courts the power to effectively punish media outlets, and the prospect of forced apologies in newspapers might contravene free speech under the European Convention on Human Rights. But with all three major political parties and a majority of the public behind the scheme, the press may ultimately find it difficult to stop.

This story is an update of The Leveson Report: What you need to know, originally published on 20 December 2012.

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