Leveson Inquiry: Different ways to regulate press

Image caption Lord Justice Leveson's report will cover press regulations among its many topics

There is a lot of confusion around what is meant by statutory underpinning, in terms of press regulation.

The confusion is fuelled by the fact that the term itself is referred to variously as statutory underpinning, a statutory backstop, backed by statute and even statutory "lite".

The best way to understand what statutory underpinning is, is to understand what it isn't.

It isn't state control of the press. It isn't statutory regulation either. Certainly not in the sense that that term is normally understood.

Statutory regulation really describes a body functioning entirely under statute, probably funded by the state and generally answerable to parliament or to a minister.

And equally, obviously it isn't self-regulation by the press. The term really indicates something created by statute, by Parliament, but independent of it. That is why it is sometimes referred to as a system backed by statute.

Different versions

An example of it is the statute that enshrines the independence of the judiciary.

That statute doesn't give the government control over the judiciary, and not many people would think that because of that statute the government writes the judgments of judges. This analogy has been pointed up by the former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

Statutory underpinning could take various forms. For instance, a statute could be introduced creating a regulator, giving it a remit and making it clearly independent of government and the press.

The statute could provide it with independent appointments arrangements, rules on membership, authority to impose fines, apologies etc. Members could be required to fund it wholly or in part through a levy.

Another version would involve a self-regulator that was subject to inspection by a body created under statute which would ensure it met standards set down in the law.

That body would have no content powers, ie those wanting to complain about the press couldn't appeal directly to it.

However, it would conduct a periodic audit of the regulator to ensure that it met the standards set down by law.

State control fears

One of the things a statute could of course do is to enshrine the independence of the press from government for the first time.

We have article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to freedom of expression - but there has never been a statute that enshrines the independence of the press.

However, what many in the press fear is that statutory underpinning is a slippery slope, a thin end of the wedge, and that it could morph into statutory or state control.

They argue that it would also send a poor message to countries around the world where press freedoms are under threat.

Governments and rulers in such countries could argue that if the UK allows statutory intervention into press freedom, why shouldn't they legislate to control their press? Many in the press also fear the licensing of newspapers.

Lord Hunt, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, favours a system of self-regulation through legally-binding contracts, but with no statutory underpinning.

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