Q. Lord Justice Leveson – haven’t we seen him before?
A Yes, quite a bit. It’s now two years and three months since he was appointed by the Prime Minister at the height of the phone-hacking scandal to look into future regulation of the press – and 11 months since he published his 1,987-page report.
Q. So why are we hearing from him again now?
A Because we still don’t have a new system of press regulation, the Commons select committee wants to know what he thinks of the delay.
Q. And what did they learn?
A Not a great deal. The judge essentially said that it was not his role to interfere in matters of politics.
Q. So what happens next?
A A Royal Charter on press regulation, agreed by all three main political parties on 18 March, will be filed in Parliament on Friday, and go before the Privy Council on 30 October. It will set out the mechanism for establishing a recognition panel to oversee the new regulatory system set up by the press.
Q. 18 March? Why the delay?
A Most of the newspaper publishers are appalled by the document and regard it as a serious infringement on freedom of the press. There was particular indignation that four members of Hacked Off, the reform group backed by Hugh Grant attended the late night negotiations over coffee and Kit Kats in Ed Miliband’s office – and no members of the press were present. Politicians are aware that without industry support a new regulatory body would not be the “independent and effective” one Leveson called for.
Q. Is Leveson supportive of a Royal Charter?
A It wasn’t something he mentioned in his report – it was the idea of Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. The thinking was that such a device would mean the regulator would not be established in law – but by a document entrenched in statute. It was supposed to be the best of both worlds but some newspaper groups are uneasy at the involvement of the Privy Council.
Q. Can the press do anything to stop this?
A The larger newspaper publishers responded to the 18 March charter by drawing up a Royal Charter of their own. It set out plans for a new regulator – the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is being formed as a replacement to the discredited Press Complaints Commission – with powers to ensure “upfront corrections” and impose fines of up to £1m for “systematic wrongdoing”.
Q. Is the press united on this?
A Almost but not quite. In the vanguard of resistance to the 18 March charter are the publishers of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, Rupert Murdoch’s British papers, the publishers of the Daily Mirror, the magazine sector and the Newspaper Society, which represents the regional press and has particular concerns that a proposed free arbitration system could lead to local titles being crippled by claims brought by opportunist lawyers.
Q. Are there dissenting voices?
A The Independent, Financial Times and The Guardian have declined to sign up for the press charter. But neither have they committed to the 18 March version. These titles have been the most enthusiastic supporters of press regulation reform but they have concerns over both Lord Justice Leveson’s findings and the Privy Council implementing them.
Q. What were the differences between these two charters?
A Significant ones. The press want one of the four members of an appointments committee which would set up the recognition panel to “represent the interests of relevant publishers”. Reformers, such as Hacked Off, argue this would effectively give the press a veto over the recognition panel. The press also want a block on Parliament introducing future changes – whereas the 18 March document allows for changes supported by a two-thirds majority in both Houses. Newspaper groups believe that a future collision with politicians – such as the MPs’ expenses row – could provoke more stringent controls.
Q. So what has happened to the newspaper industry’s Royal Charter?
A It was rejected by a sub-committee of the Privy Council this week for not being sufficiently compliant with the Leveson recommendations.
Q. And now the press must accept the 18 March version?
A No. It seems increasingly likely that many of the major publishers will snub the MPs and establish their own IPSO system. John Witherow, editor of The Times, indicated as much this week when he told the BBC: “I think the press must go ahead with its own form of self-regulation and prove to the public and politicians that it’s fair and robust and free.” It could mean that the Royal Charter establishes a regulator with nothing to regulate – although Hacked Off has claimed there will be an incentive to join the charter-backed system because it protects publishers from the exemplary damages that could be imposed on those who do not sign up.
Q. That sounds like a mess?
A It is. Some in the press believe that the exemplary damages element – which could lead to publishers paying court costs for cases they win – is unfair and could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. But without such an incentive it’s difficult to see news organisations seeing a benefit from being inside a system backed by MPs. Gill Phillips director of legal services at The Guardian, has complained that Leveson represents “the worst of all worlds”. Her paper wants the process to be “paused”.
Q. How easy is this?
A In the current climate it will be some challenge. The Daily Mail’s recent spat with Ed Miliband will have strengthened the resolve of the Labour leader to take a hard line. But The Guardian, the most vociferous media voice for regulatory reform, has recently been concerned by the political pressure it has received over its coverage of the Edward Snowden security leaks story. MI5’s intervention into that row – accusing The Guardian of aiding terrorists – has highlighted tensions between the state and the media – and re-opened Fleet Street feuds once again.