LONDON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - 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 failed.
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 editors.
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 legislation.
“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 Diana.
“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 judge recommended.
“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 opposition.
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, told Reuters.
“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.”