|Lord Justice Leveson in London on Thursday. (Reuters)
London, Nov. 29: The British press has behaved in an “outrageous” way for many decades and ought to be controlled by tough self-regulation and, if that didn’t work, with legislation.
This is the basic recommendation in Lord Justice Leveson’s 2,000-page report which said the press had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
Although Leveson’s report is on the British press, his findings will probably set a standard for journalism throughout the world.
Those who have suffered at the hands of the press, including some high profile celebrities such as the actor Hugh Grant, welcomed the idea of legislation to control newspapers. However, others, while accepting the press had behaved very badly on many occasions, argued Britain’s proud tradition of a free press could not possibly allow for legislation to control newspapers.
Opinion in Britain is so sharply polarised between the pro and anti-legislation lobbies — even the Prime Minister David Cameron and his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg are on opposite sides — that the chances are that laws to control newspapers will probably not get past a fractured House of Commons.
Cameron warned today that he had “serious concerns and misgivings” about the prospect of legislation on press regulation. Responding to Leveson’s report on media ethics, the Prime Minister cast doubt on the report’s central recommendation that a new system of press self-regulation required a statutory underpinning if it was to command public confidence.
“I have some serious concerns and misgivings about this recommendation,” he told MPs in a Commons statement.
“For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” he said. “We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
From India, the Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke out for a free media. He said he “hopes and prays” the government will not back statutory control of the press.
“It is one of the glories of this country (UK) that we have a free, exuberant and sometimes feral media,” commented Johnson, who writes a weekly column in The Daily Telegraph. “They keep public life far cleaner than many other places in the world — and that makes this country a wonderful place to live and invest in.”
Civil liberties group Liberty — whose director Shami Chakrabarti served as an assessor in the inquiry team — welcomed the principal recommendation of a more robust and independent press self-regulator, but said it was unable to back the last-resort alternative of compulsory statutory regulation.
She warned: “What nobody needs and Liberty cannot support is any last-resort compulsory statutory press regulation — coming at too high a price in a free society.”
But many came forward to back calls for legislation, among them former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley. He successfully sued the News Of The World for privacy damages over claims that he was involved in a “sick Nazi orgy”. Mosley said it would be “astonishing” if the government did not implement Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.
He said: “It certainly is a very thorough document and it’s in many respects better than one could have hoped. I think it would be astonishing if the politicians didn’t implement the report because no responsible politician could allow the current situation to continue.”
In his report, Leveson proposed expanding the legal remit of the communications watchdog Ofcom so that it became a “verification” body, able to recognise an independent regulator that had “credible” rules and powers to enforce them — such as huge fines. The report also heavily criticised politicians for becoming too cosy with the media. Cameron went to “great lengths” to woo Rupert Murdoch’s News International newspaper empire prior to the last general election, Lord Justice Leveson said.