Editorial: A new press watchdog must be independent

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The Independent Online

In the past few weeks and months, as the temperature has risen and the atmosphere become ever more febrile, this newspaper has resisted the urge to suggest to Lord Justice Leveson what he should recommend in his report. Indeed, the Editor said as much on Saturday, maintaining it was pointless at this stage to second-guess the judge, that it was better to wait and see. But over the weekend, the pressure intensified, with lobbying from all quarters.

From the outset, we have recognised the need for the Leveson Inquiry. We have issues with its remit, which we felt was made deliberately wide so as to remove the spotlight from the issue of hacking and payments to public servants, and, given his links to former senior News International executives, from David Cameron. We believe that while the illegal accessing of voicemails and bribing of officials were being investigated – finally – by the police and had become the subject of criminal prosecution, the Inquiry should not have begun its hearings. Entertaining and occasionally revelatory as they were, the Leveson sessions were lacking in that they did not directly and forensically address the malpractices that had prompted the furore leading to the Inquiry's creation.

However, while it was flawed – and it did not fully explore subjects such as the pervasive influence of the PR industry on the press and the parliamentary lobby, both of which it was entitled to do – Leveson undoubtedly lanced a growing, increasingly painful, boil. Some elements of the press had behaved badly and did so with impunity – either because the self-regulatory mechanism, the Press Complaints Commission, was not up to the task or because politicians and law enforcers did not want to know.

Confidence in the press had sunk following cases such as those of the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies, none of which involved hacking or bunging police officers. Yes, there were rogue elements among journalists and their managers, which have now been exposed and whittled away. But there were too many examples of members of the public being wronged, too little admission of wrongdoing and not enough self-imposed corrective reform, provoking a breakdown in trust and credibility.

Change was required and Leveson may prove to be the architect of that new template. That's if his proposals are accepted fully. The signals from Westminster are conflicting: the fact is nobody can begin to gauge for certain what will occur until he reports.

We have always appreciated that Leveson may call for a press regulatory framework reinforced by statute. To the extent that this paper would have little to fear from the minimal involvement of Parliament, we are not fiercely hostile. We would be if MPs and peers went beyond statutory underpinning and were able to determine what we can and cannot do.

That said, the entire principle of legislated press regulation, however light, leaves us with foreboding. In short, it is not something we desire. In our view, while the current PCC is broken, it does not mean that self-regulation should be rejected altogether.

There is scope for a new, tough self-regulator – one with the power to proactively investigate and to fine. By contracting to join this replacement for the PCC, titles would be able to avail themselves of a fast-track arbitration service to settle defamation disputes – one that was cheaper for them as well as for the complainant.

So far, what we've described is the proposal of Lords Black and Hunt, and accepted by a number of newspapers. But where The Independent, The London Evening Standard, The Guardian and Financial Times differ from them is that we do not feel the Black/Hunt model is sufficiently independent. Time and again, it comes up in criticism of the existing arrangement that the PCC is too linked to its newspaper members, that the body is not only self-regulating but self-serving.

For that distrust to be removed, the new regulator must be seen to be independent – that means no one serving on it should be appointed by those organisations that fund it. The chairman should not have strong ties to a member group and should be selected under the Nolan rules enshrining the independence of top public appointments. Neither, in the interests of achieving true independence, will the current system of the regulator's funding being overseen by a separate body comprised of representatives from the newspaper groups be allowed to continue.

The best way of guarding against MPs and peers interfering in press regulation in the short term or at a distant date in the future is to avoid statute completely. That means establishing a self-regulator that passes every test on independence. It is achievable – but for that, some of the industry's grandees must recognise that the status quo has to be scrapped.

And that means completely – a compromise that sees newspaper groups retain their grip fools no one.