Press 'need to act' after Leveson

Copies of the Leveson report
Image caption The content of the Leveson report is being hotly debated

Lord Justice Leveson has spoken but it's for others to decide what happens next. So will that be the politicians or the newspaper publishers?

In his report, Sir Brian Leveson said the press should set up a tough new independent regulator, but the system should be underpinned by statute.

This has fired the starting gun on two separate processes.

At Westminster, following all-party talks, the Department of Culture Media and Sport has begun drawing up draft legislation to implement the Leveson proposals.

'Gauntlet thrown'

The Conservatives - who don't want a law - think the process will highlight how difficult it is to try to legislate in a complex and controversial area.

Labour and the Lib Dems think the opposite, but fear the government may write the draft legislation in such a way as to discredit the proposals.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller told the BBC: "In drafting this piece of legislation what we are going to be demonstrating is that it wouldn't be a simple two-clause bill." And she said "the gauntlet has been thrown down" to newspapers to outline how they would set up tough self-regulation instead.

Most newspapers welcome that. They have accepted for many months that a tough new system is needed, even though they reject the idea of statute and other parts of the Leveson report, particularly the suggestion of a role for Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator.

In an editorial, the Financial Times says: "Ofcom is charged with regulating television broadcasters that have a legal obligation to impartiality. It reports directly to government. This is a step down the road towards state licensing of a press that, of course, has no obligation to provide balance."

New proposals

But, like other papers, the FT believes newspapers must now respond constructively and take up the offer "to develop reforms that are workable and command public trust".

The Daily Telegraph also opposes statute but says that "the industry must act quickly to set up an independent regulatory body that fulfils the principles put forward by Leveson".

That is not surprising because its own executive director, Lord Black of Brentwood, has been leading the industry's attempts to draw up a replacement for the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

As chairman of the Press Board of Finance, he has worked closely with the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Hunt, who became the PCC's chairman last year, with a brief to close it down and replace it with a much stronger body.

Together they came up with detailed proposals for a new system, most of which had the backing of most of the national press.

A new independent body would be able to fine those who breached its standards - up to £1m - and award compensation to victims. There would be an investigative arm, to look into serious wrongdoing by papers, and legally enforceable contracts, to bind publishers into the new system and ensure funding.

But just before the Leveson report came out, the Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent all distanced themselves from the industry proposals, publicly expressing reservations about aspects of the plans.

And the Leveson report itself said the Black/Hunt proposals did not go "nearly far enough" to demonstrate independence from publishers.

That has raised the question of whether Lords Black and Hunt will continue to lead the industry's search for a new system.

Leadership figure

The Guardian says they "have done useful work" but may not be the right people to try to build a consensus among editors, publishers and proprietors.

It says: "Their past efforts confusingly married consultation with lobbying and they badly misjudged what would be acceptable, either to the inquiry or to Westminster."

The paper thinks a fresh face is needed: "The press urgently needs to find a substantial figure above the immediate fray who can approach Leveson's proposals with something like an objective eye and who can make convincing responses on merit."

But Lord Hunt is not planning to step aside.

In a speech at the University of East Anglia, following the Leveson report, he said he would be calling a meeting of the main publishers to start taking his proposals forward.

Interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC's Daily Politics on Friday, he said that people needed to "calm down for a moment, read it all through and then unite on the common ground" in the Leveson report.

He said he wanted to "hit the ground running" in drawing up the new system of regulation.

Whether he can unite all the publishers behind him remains to be seen.

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