John Leech MP writes… Remembering the reasons for Leveson

The Manchester Evening News has a regular slot in the paper where they get a number of MPs to write an opinion column on topical issues of their choice. This week just happened to be my turn, so I thought that I would comment on the eagerly awaited Leveson report, due out on Thursday.

For those of you who don’t know, the MEN is owned by Trinity Mirror, and along with other major newspaper groups, are totally opposed to independent regulation of the press. They claim that regulation will be the end of freedom of expression. How ironic then, that the MEN has refused to print my personal views in an opinion column. So much for their commitment to freedom of expression. Judge for yourself as to whether my opinion was so subversive as to warrant being censored.

John Leech “Viewpoint” column on the Leveson Report

This Thursday, the long awaited Lord Justice Leveson report is published into media regulation. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I want to make clear that we will support any reasonable recommendations he makes that are proportionate and workable.

However, we are clear that a balance needs to be struck – We need to change the way in which media accountability works, but we should also defend the principle of a challenging, independent and free press as an integral part of democracy.

In all the rows between Labour and Tories about who was closer to Rupert Murdoch, the central reason for the report has been forgotten.

It is because journalists systematically broke the law, and tapped the phones of celebs, politicians and normal people to find stories.

Do you remember how you felt when you heard that journalists had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler? I know I felt disgust and contempt.

We need a system in place that allows us to look at the parents of Milly Dowler in the eye and say that we have done all we can to stop what happened to them happening to anyone else.

Leveson happened because journalists, by their actions, showed that voluntary self-regulation, administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), simply does not work.

The last three Prime Ministers have had relationships with some members of the press that goes well beyond a professional relationship all politicians need with journalists. Tony Blair jetted off to meet Murdoch in Australia, and was Godfather to his son.

Gordon Brown altered the Data Protection Act following press lobbying, and the current PM, by appointing Coulson and being close friend with Brooks, both now charged by the police, has made similar mistakes.

Both the Tories and Labour recognise that the Liberal Democrats did not have the same relationship with the Press as them.

In June, David Cameron said, “Let me be frank: we are talking about the relationships that Conservative politicians and Labour politicians have had over the past 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did not have that relationship.”

And Labour peer David Puttman added, “In truth, the only party that has consistently taken a thoughtfully independent position on this issue has been the Liberal Democrats.”

In 2003, we argued that the PCC be reformed into a genuinely independent body, with compulsory membership and at arm’s length from editors. These are exactly the same reforms being talked about today.

In 2009, we referred the Metropolitan Police Inquiry into phone-hacking to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, saying that the Met could not act as judge and jury in their own trial.

In 2010, Chris Huhne MP called for a full judicial inquiry into phone hacking. We were the first political party to do this.

It was thanks to Lib Dem Minister Tom McNally that the Communications Bill contained the plurality test that prevented News International taking full control of BSkyB in 2011.

And at our 2011 Conference, we passed a motion on phone hacking which again called for the overhaul of the PCC and stronger ‘fit and proper persons’ rules.

Nick Clegg has made the Lib Dem view clear. Giving evidence to Leveson, he said,

Maintaining the freedom and diversity of the press is critical. As a liberal, it is my deepest instinct to preserve a press that is fiercely independent, and protected from political interference. Any proposals from government or this inquiry must have this principle at its heart.

We wait to see what Lord Leveson recommends on Thursday.

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8 Comments

  • I was delighted to hear the unappealing Connor Burns, a Tory who called the Olympic opening ceremony “a load of
    leftie multicultural crap ” and who is in the process of raising signatures for a letter opposing any “state interference of the press”, suddenly left lost for words on the radio when a fellow Conservative MP ridiculed the idea that serving newspaper executives and editors could be a genuinely independent replacement for the PCC.
    If it came to supporting a Labour motion which would loosen proprietorial influence so that the press was allowed to be more accountable both to the truth and to its readers, the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t think of abstaining, as they did over Jeremy Hunt.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Nov '12 - 8:54pm

    “It is because journalists systematically broke the law, and tapped the phones of celebs, politicians and normal people to find stories”
    Well yes. which is why we should be very careful about state licensing of the press. we already have laws which deal with these abuses .

  • Fiona White 28th Nov '12 - 8:31am

    I am sure there are ways of making sure the press are subject to independent scrutiny and can be held to account if they break the rules which do not involve direct government interference. It is very clear that the previous attempts failed miserably. For example, I think I read that the owner of the Daily Express refused to participate. I am very much in favour of genuine investigative journalism. That is very different than simply prying into people’s private lives out of idle curiousity or worse. Could there be a law appointing an independent regulator and requiring every newspaper to contract to be bound by his or her rulings? Obviously the regulator would have to be appointed very carefully to avoid any political bias. What about an appointments board made up of politicians from all parties who have elected members of the House of Commons plus some independent members? Whatever happens, innocent members of the public have to have their rights protected.

  • @ Fiona

    Politicians selecting a news regulator would pick one in favour fo politicians, Telegraph and expences anyone?

    The devide is not just between the political parties but between those in power and those not.

    Illegal behavior does not need to be illigal twice just tp be prececuted once.

  • @Psi
    So I suppose you’d prefer a panel chosen from industry insiders, then. When you write about those in power, please remember we are in power (though sometimes you wouldn’t know it), and we have to trust that our own ethics and values will be represented by Liberal Democrat MPs whom we choose to represent us. Nick Clegg has already indicated he is not happy with the Hunt/Black proposals which are unsurprisingly supported by virtually every industry insider – though there are some interesting exceptions.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/9699004/The-press-should-hug-the-Leveson-report-ina-grim-embrace-of-welcome.html

  • @ Sean

    I take it you are taking about a replacement for the PCC? That should only ever be a small part of the solution and who has said the membership has to be drawn from industry insiders?

    The fundamental control has to be the Law. Journalists who commit crimes should face the same punishment as any other member of the public. This continues to be ignored by those advocating for a regulator.

    People accuse the PCC for failing over the illigal behavior of journalists, That is quite simply a stupid position, Crime should be investigated by those required to enforce the law (normally the police) we can’t outsource law enforcement to private bodies (will some Libertarians would say you can but I would not want to see that).

  • @Psi
    “Crime should be investigated by those required to enforce the law (normally the police)”

    None of the press (with the exception of The Independent) and certainly none of the police involved in an earlier inquiry wanted to investigate Nick Davies’s Guardian story of phone hacking, both agencies sticking to the single rogue reporter line until as recently as July 4 last year.

    “People accuse the PCC for failing over the illigal (sic) behavior of journalists, That is quite simply a stupid position.”

    The PCC was severely criticised, even by those hostile to the idea of statutory press regulation, for a complete failure to examine the behaviour of certain News International journalists. Even Baroness Buscombe, former Chairwoman of the PCC, would have found it hard to agree with what you’ve just written. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RldmvXRJFp0

    Let’s wait for Lord Leveson’s report tomorrow.

  • @ Sean Blake
    “None of the press (with the exception of The Independent) and certainly none of the police involved in an earlier inquiry wanted to investigate Nick Davies’s Guardian story of phone hacking, both agencies sticking to the single rogue reporter line until as recently as July 4 last year.”

    It should be irrelevant if the press were interested or not, the police should have investigated. There was evidence from operation motorman that should have indicated that crimes were being committed, as a result the Met is to blame and there should be a through investigation and where failings are found action taken (if any senior officers blocked an investigation they should be fired).

    I don’t believe we should be relying on the press to do our investigations for law enforcement where there is evidence they should investigate.

    “The PCC was severely criticised, even by those hostile to the idea of statutory press regulation, for a complete failure to examine the behaviour of certain News International journalists. Even Baroness Buscombe, former Chairwoman of the PCC, would have found it hard to agree with what you’ve just written.”

    The reason for that is that the insiders in the press have an incentive to make others believe there should be a regulator and particularly one that is easily “captured” by the industry. If there is a regulator the police will be less inclined to investigate and try and outsource the role to the regulator.

    The PCC should be a form of alternative dispute resolution so where someone is wronged there is a fast (and free) method of getting a resolution (redress and correction).

    However the existence of the PCC (as a form of ADR) should not replace the existence of a legal framework (like libel, but with some tweaks) where if a paper prints something untrue about you can use the legal system to enforce your rights. Chris Jeffries did this he was awarded damages and the papers had to apologise. Though I recognise the punishments for the papers involved were in adequate for what happened.

    There needs to be some amendment to the system as Libel has short comings as printing untrue claims is not alone enough to demonstrate libel. So there needs to be a resolution regarding that, but also uk libel is too heavy on the burden of proof (compare US and UK libel). Also there are issues of cost, where a tribunal system could help.

    All of this would not be a massive departure from current frameworks but still require someone to actually investigate crime. The failure of law enforcement in the UK to prosecute crimes is a problem having a regulator does not fix, that has to be by their being consequences, for the police, for that failure.

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