UK Prime Minister, David Cameron
Omololu Ogunmade with agency reports
After almost one year of full-scale enquiry into the events leading to the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, Lord Justice Leves on Thursday submitted his report. The panel was set up by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine the question of standards and ethics in the media industry in the country.
In his report, Leveson recommended the introduction of the first press law in Britain since the 17th century – proposing that a statutory body such as Ofcom should take responsibility for monitoring an overhauled Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
This, he suggested, will cause the British media to be more conscious about the ethics of the profession, which could ultimately lead to the protection of the rights of the citizenry.
The proposal – made despite the fierce opposition of some conservative stakeholders in the industry such as Fleet Street, to the introduction of the statute – is designed to reassure the public that newspapers are subject to an effective and independent regulator to prevent a repetition of phone hacking or other scandals.
In the 56-page executive summary, Leveson said the purpose of the legislation was “not to establish a body to regulate the press”. But he warned that if newspapers were not prepared to join a revamped PCC, it would be necessary to force Ofcom to act as a “backstop regulator”.
Leveson said it was necessary for a body like Ofcom to monitor a revamped PCC to “reassure the public of its independence” but insisted that legislation would “not establish a body to regulate the press that is for the press to do”.
As is the case in Nigeria, the Leveson report also decried the close relationship that exists between media practitioners and politicians, although the report did not single out any individual, other than making some criticism of former Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, even though there was no clear evidence of bias. He stressed that the exchanges between Hunt’s former special adviser, Adam Smith, and James Murdoch's adviser, Fred Michel, did give rise to “a perception of bias”.
He also noted that the Metropolitan police should have done more to investigate the phone-hacking scandal once it emerged that the practice appeared to be more widespread than the actions of a single rogue reporter in 2009 and 2010.
The judge insisted that he could not recommend the model of PCC reform drawn up by Lords Black and Hunt, because it would be insufficiently independent of the press. “It is still the industry marking its own homework,” the judge said during a press conference on the report.
Leveson also said that his proposed new law would enshrine “for the first time” a “legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press” – an attempt to provide a US-style “first amendment” provision in the UK for the first time.
The proposed press law is one of a string of conclusions in a summary that contains withering criticism of standards in the industry – but the shorter document rarely singles out individual newspapers.
“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained,” the judge said.
Leveson added that people like the McCanns and the parents of Milly Dowler had “devastating” experiences at the hands of the press, and that parts of the industry viewed celebrities as little more than “fair game”.
There was also criticism of the Metropolitan police, and specifically former Assistant Police Commissioner, John Yates, for failing to reopen the investigation into phone hacking after articles in the Guardian of London and the New York Times concluded that the practice went wider than a single "rogue reporter" in 2009 and 2010.
He said that Yates was wrong to conclude, after the Guardian published its investigation in July 2009, on the same day that “there was no turning back.
A defensive mindset was then established which affected all that followed.” Leveson said Yates and other officers involved in those decisions made mistakes — and “the integrity of the officers who gave evidence … shone through.” He also said that the police were correct to limit the initial 2006 investigation into hacking into the material seized from private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. That decision was “fully justified” because of wider counter-terrorism priorities.
Reacting to the report at the Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Cameron concurred that there might be need to legislate on the model prescribed by Leveson, arguing that in order to achieve the carrots and sticks in legal costs, it probably requires a statute law to recognise the regulator, introduce exemplary damages and to refer judges to procedure rules on costs.