Editor’s introduction: In this essay, Geoffrey Robertson QC, who has extensive experience representing media companies and free speech cases, explores the role of the Leveson Inquiry, established by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in July to conduct a “judge-led inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press and the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International and other newspaper organisations.” Robertson places the inquiry in the historical context of media regulation in the UK. He casts a skeptical eye on the prospects for meaningful media, especially given the failures of past similar attempts and the low credibility of the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in either protecting privacy or enforcing its ethical rulings.He then explores various proposed alternative structures to media regulation. Since the essay deals with UK-specific material, British grammar conventions have been preserved.
By Geoffrey Robertson
The views expressed are his own.
The wide-ranging remit of Leveson I is to inquire into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press”, its relations with police and politicians, and to make recommendations for “a new and more effective policy and regulatory regime” which upholds freedom of speech and media independence “whilst encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards”. This is a Royal Commission on the Press by another name: it is the fourth since the Second World War, and its terms of reference are much wider than Sir David Calcutt’s 1991 and 1993 enquiries into privacy and press ethics. Its Report will have more clout than recent reports on the subject by Parliamentary committees. Leveson II – specifically into unlawful or improper conduct by News International (or other news organizations), and by the metropolitan police, must await the conclusion of trials and appeals resulting from “Operation Weeting” and so will not get underway until 2014 at the earliest. At the first stage, recommendations will be made for legislative and policy changes in a year’s time, possibly to be introduced in conjunction with the government’s Defamation Bill.
In choosing Lord Justice Leveson to report on press discipline, the government opted for a sitting judge in the mould of Lord Hutton, from a criminal (mainly prosecution) background and with no evident empathy towards the media. Sir David Calcutt had some free speech credentials, as did Sir Hartley Shawcross (who chaired the second Royal Commission) whilst the third and most recent Commission was chaired by media-friendly Lord Macgregor (assisted, in understanding media law, by Leonard Hoffman Q.C. ) Leveson is to be “assisted” in understanding media issues by six expert “panelists” whose role and power (e.g. to append their own, or dissenting, reports) is unclear. Their “expertise” in the sharp end of news gathering is questionable – two are former political editors who were members of the discredited “lobby” system, together with a former Chief Constable, the Director of “Liberty”, an ex-head of OFCOM and a former chairman of the Financial Times. The omission of any distinguished practitioner of investigative journalism is notable. It does not mean that Leveson will not be supportive of public interest journalism, but it does mean that the press will have to make a convincing case for its own freedom from the kind of statutory restraints requiring ‘due impartiality’ and “good taste” that better-behaved (and less investigative) broadcasters have long had to endure. The demands for statutory regulation, for more criminal laws and for a new civil wrong of invasion of privacy will be difficult to resist, and already there have been siren calls to subject editors and journalists to “professional” regulation – including fines and disbarment – of a kind that have long been visited upon errant doctors and lawyers.