LONDON Nov 29 Lord Justice Brian Leveson
produced plans for the toughest regulation of the British press
in 300 years on Thursday after decades of misbehaviour, final
warnings and universal acceptance that the current system had
Although rows lie ahead over whether a law will be required
to underpin Leveson's vision for a tough new regulator, the
63-year-old has shrewdly found a way forward which indicates
that much of which he suggests is likely to be accepted by even
his harshest critics.
Britain's unruly newspapers, which came to simply disregard
their own previous code, might bluster at the threat of new
legislation but could be quietly relieved they are not facing
anything even worse.
"We are grateful to Lord Justice Leveson for his thorough
and comprehensive report," said Tom Mockridge, chief executive
of Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper arm News International
It was a phone hacking scandal centred on News International
which led to Leveson's inquiry but it merely represented the
culmination of decades of growing belief that the press had run
out of control, answerable only to a body run by its own
The so called "dark arts" of the tabloid reporters included
hiring private detectives to appropriate personal details,
bribing officials for information, rummaging through garbage
bins for discarded documents, and long-lens photography that
exposed the intimate moments of the rich and famous.
Since 1695, when King William III was on the throne, the
British press has been free of state control although it was not
always the aggressive industry it is considered to be today.
While international readers were able to read about King
Edward VIII's affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson in
the 1930s, the story remained conspicuously absent from the
pages of British newspapers.
But after World War Two that changed, and with it serious
questions began to be asked whether the press should be
regulated by law. In 1953, papers received their first warning
that failure to get their house in order would lead to
"I give warning here and now that if it fails, some of us
again will have to come forward with a measure similar to this
bill," said lawmaker C J Simmons after he withdrew a proposal
for a press law.
Similar warnings that parliament would act followed in 1962,
1977, 1990 and in 1993, not long after a government minister had
warned the press they were "drinking in the last chance saloon".
The current system of regulation was established in 1991
with the creation of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) with
its own code of conduct. But it failed to prevent the press from
running ever more sensational stories to attract readers,
particularly about the British royal family.
Papers which had declined to report Edward VIII's affair,
regularly hounded Princess Diana, the wife of heir-to-the-throne
Prince Charles who died in Paris in a car crash in 1997 while
being chased by paparazzi.
They also had no qualms about publishing secretly recorded,
intimate phone calls between Charles and his future second wife
Camilla, with whom he was having an affair while married to
"Attempts to take them to task have not been successful.
Promises follow other promises. Even changes made following the
death of Diana, Princess of Wales, have hardly been enduring,"
said Leveson, whose year-long inquisition heard from more than
600 witnesses detailing a catalogue of horror stories about
"outrageous" press behaviour.
"Too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of
complaints from too many people, with too little in the way of
titles taking responsibility, or considering the consequences
for the individuals involved."
He dismissed the industry's suggestion of a new
self-regulatory body, saying it did not go "anything like far
enough" in showing it was independent of the press.
He called for a new watchdog which would be independently
appointed, would not consist of any serving editors, unlike the
PCC, nor any members of the government or House of Commons, and
could impose fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.6 million).
The body would offer an arbitration service providing quick
and inexpensive resolution of disputes, which would be an
incentive for publications to sign up, he said.
Those who declined to join, and thus were not party to this
service, could face exemplary damages in libel cases and have to
pay all their legal expenses even if they won. Leveson said this
too would be a powerful incentive to join.
"We accept that a new system should be independent, have a
standards code, a means of resolving disputes, the power to
demand prominent apologies and the ability to levy heavy fines,"
News International's Mockridge said.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors,
said the industry proposal was not that far away from what the
"I believe that the industry will take on board those
points," he told Reuters, adding the bulk of the press still
remained steadfastly opposed to any law, which Leveson says is
essential to underpin a new body.
This is the one main area of contention for the industry and
Prime Minister David Cameron has already outlined his
But even without legislation, the Leveson proposals will
constitute a far greater oversight for the press, which many say
has already begun to show greater restraint in the light of
growing public awareness of its methods and behaviour.
"I think it's a very shrewd and elegant report which
cleverly has the lightest, lightest, touch of statutory ... and
really only if the industry doesn't put its house in order," Roy
Greenslade, a former senior editor at Murdoch's Sun tabloid,
"So it's partly a return to the last chance saloon and with
the axe hanging there in the background. It is self regulation
with a stick."