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Angie Bray: David Cameron can't leave Leveson hanging

Culture Committee member Angie Bray writes for PoliticsHome urging action on the Leveson proposals, but warning against any state regulation of the press.

Two months on from the publication of the Leveson Report and we’re still waiting to find out how many of his recommendations will be taken forward - speculation remains rife over what shape they’ll take in practice when we finally get the promised new regulatory regime.

To my mind, we can’t leave this hanging for much longer. The Prime Minister very clearly threw down the gauntlet to the big national newspaper editors by demanding that they produce a new tough, independent regulatory system in line with the Leveson recommendations. His eagerness to get this sorted quickly makes sense, given why Leveson was set up in the first place. The public needs to be reassured that what was allowed to go on in the past is not going to happen again. They need to know that the new regime really will be able to protect against the abuses that have led to people suffering.

Yet another expensive media inquiry, as Leveson was – unconfirmed estimates put the strain on the public purse at anywhere between £3.9 and £6 million – means we do need to be able to have something to actually show for it this time. Talks are ongoing and they certainly can’t be easy (it’s not as if any two newspapers, let alone other kinds of publications, are the same) but in my view, we must guard against a disproportionate response. After all, we should remember that a lot of what happened was against the Law in the first place, and therefore, is an issue about enforcement as much as about press ethics.

For me, the aim has to be to avoid any state regulation of what we should not forget is one of our country’s finest democratic traditions, our free press. Politicians finally gave up their role controlling the press for very good reasons and it would diminish the quality of our press, were it to find itself under the control of Government once more. We need to strike the right balance this time and stifling the press is not the answer.

I’m unconvinced Leveson achieves this balance and concerned by the clamour to jump to accept all of his recommendations, as the draft bill put together and published earlier this month by Hacked Off so readily does. Fundamental questions remain. What if titles choose not to sign up to the new regulatory body? If the credibility of the new system is immediately contingent on all editors signing up to an agreed code of ethics, won’t it be undermined by the publications that exercise their right to ignore it? I certainly can’t imagine the public warming to reports showing publications, perhaps popular publications, being forcibly closed down because they won’t conform.

So how can we retain an essentially voluntary approach, while at the same time establishing a new body with real credibility? I suspect the answer may lie somewhere in the incentives that can be provided – for instance, offering protection from exemplary damages to those ‘inside the tent’ who have signed up to an enforceable code of ethics, while leaving those who choose to stay ‘outside the tent’ vulnerable to swingeing fines and penalties if found guilty in court. My view is that it should be up to each publication to decide, and I assume that those who have little to fear – possibly gardening, housekeeping or other such uncontroversial magazines – will not necessarily feel the need to sign up. Others involved in more controversial news and current affairs will probably recognise the need to join to avoid the cost of exemplary damages.

The greatest benefit to the public would surely be that those seeking redress of a serious kind from a publication would be able to pursue their claim with an arbitration body – empowered to impose fines of up to £1million - as part of the new setup much more quickly and without cost. This would go a considerable way towards showing the public that the balance has been shifted in their direction.

But back to Leveson, and many important questions remain: who oversees the new regulatory body? Here I really depart from his thinking. It would be ridiculous to make a virtue of keeping politicians away from the controls only to then put Ofcom in charge. The most senior positions at Ofcom are filled by Government appointment, and it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the current chief executive is a well-known former Labour party apparatchik. So more work needed there in my view.

Ultimately, if this Body is to be properly established, it will need to be formally recognised. I would not wish to see this done by statute because of my concerns that this would allow future generations of politicians a way back in by tweaking the statute. One idea doing the rounds is to do this by Royal Charter – I think this might be a way through – but I’d still need reassurance that it could be made immune from interference.

I don’t deny that this is an incredibly difficult and hugely important piece of work that has to be done. In the end Lord Justice Leveson seems to have created as many questions as he tried to answer.

There is no denying, though, that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle and the public wants to see the promise of action delivered on.

Perhaps we didn’t anticipate that what started out as an inquiry into appalling activities involving phone hacking by a handful of journalists should end proposing root and branch reform of our whole press and media establishment. But that’s what we’ve got and what has to be done.