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Lessons from Leveson
January/February 2013

The Leveson inquiry was set up to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press. Its report soon led to an examination of the benefits, drawbacks and ethos of the law. Little more than an hour after Lord Justice Leveson had called for a "cross-party response" to his recommendations, the Prime Minister declared himself opposed in principle to "writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land" while the Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders offered their unqualified support for such legislation. However, it was not long before the politicians started to coalesce around a common approach.

Leveson had called for independent self-regulation of the press. One can argue that this phrase is a contradiction in terms—if the press regulates itself then its regulator is not independent-but the judge's plan was clear enough: a regulator funded by the press but run by an independently appointed board with a lay majority and with no serving politicians or editors among its members. There was broad support for such a body, as well as acceptance within the industry that the existing Press Complaints Commission did not satisfy the Leveson test.

Why should the press agree to fund and support a regulator that would stop it making money? After all, Richard Desmond's Express newspapers are not even part of the existing—ineffective—complaints commission. Leveson's answer was the classic stick-and-carrot approach. The incentive would be a low-cost arbitration system to resolve complaints; those not prepared to join might end up paying exemplary damages in the courts. But carrots alone would not do the trick. Leveson's big stick was legislation. 

Crucially, though, the Leveson Act would be no more than "statutory underpinning". The regulatory body would not be created by Parliament: it would be designed and established by the industry itself, would have to decide whether the regulator had met the required standards and would also have to keep the regulator under review and ensure that standards did not slip. Parliament's role would be limited to setting out the standards and establishing the recognition body.

What, though, would happen if a regulatory body failed to meet the prescribed standards or if a significant publisher chose not to be part of it? In that case, Leveson was forced to conclude, a statutory backstop regulator would be required. It would need powers to carry out investigations, require corrections and levy fines. This compulsory backstop was not supported by the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, one of Leveson's six assessors.

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