Today’s initial debate on the Leveson recommendations (full debate next Monday) was one of Parliament’s better performances – listening without barracking, thoughtful, exposing the fault-lines clearly but without tribal partisanship.
Leveson in an encyclopaedic 2,000 page report laid out proposals which are manifestly reasonable, balanced and proportionate. The press should come together to create a new self-regulatory body to be governed by an independent board with a majority of independent members and no serving editors on it.
The board would have a code of standards and in the light of that hear and decide on complaints and have the power to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies. It would also be empowered to carry out investigations into newspapers on its own initiative, and be authorised to levy fines up to £1 million (or 1% of turnover) for a systemic failure of standards. So far, so good. But will it be enforceable?
To ensure its rulings were enforceable, Leveson says (and the Labour and LibDem parties agree, but Cameron and most of the Tory party do not) there would need to be a new law or some form of statutory underpinning. The new statute would enshrine a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press. It would also set down the minimum requirements for any new self-regulator and give Ofcom the power to make sure there requirements were met.
Leveson hopes the industry will sign up to this. However, if a large part of the press (and any part of the national press) chose not to, he suggests that Ofcom could act as a back-stop regulator for at least bigger news publications. This would need a new law to give it the power to enforce standards, direct apologies, levy fines and perform all the tasks of the self-regulator directly.
I believe Labour is right to accept these recommendations since it rightly repudiates State control of the press, and would (rightly) create a new system of press complaints which is independent both of politicians and serving editors and would apply to all newspapers. No more would the Daily Express and Daily Star be able to walk away from the Press Complaints Commision when it suited them, as the proprietor Desmond did contemptuously.
The new complaints system would be accessible and straightforward for anyone to use, not just for the rich and powerful. And after the unspeakable cruelties visited on Milly Dowler’s parents and on the McCanns and after the appalling and repeated invasion of privacy suffered by the victims of phone-hacking, perhaps one of the great injstices of our age may finally be laid to rest.