Radical change

In the internet age, the Leveson Report should seize the opportunity to address issues relating to more than just the traditional press, says Chris Scott


Chris Scott
Chris Scott

The challenge for Lord Justice Leveson is to step out of the tawdry tales of press wrongdoing, most of which are already somehow outlawed, and focus on the practical and independent ways disputes are dealt with.

He should avoid merely seizing on reform of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), but use the breadth of his terms of reference to look at grievances around reputation and privacy more widely and the interaction with defamation, privacy and harassment laws.

Recent debate could lead you to believe that he is making a binary decision between a statutory or self-regulating successor to the PCC. Far better he takes a more ambitious approach to considering what would give fast, independent and effective resolution without inhibiting free speech, taking in not just alternatives to opt-in and untrusted self-regulation, but also the uncertainties of litigation.

We will see better value for money from the inquiry if those proposals can have broader application than the press, not least as the boundaries between commercial and citizen publisher and UK and international publication continue to blur.

Doing this could also address the fundamental weakness of Leveson’s remit that while the UK press is a vital and influential part of what impacts reputations and private lives, it is just a part. It’s unrealistic to expect proposals for an international treaty on the internet, but broad thinking around reputations and private lives might give a choice of dispute resolution that can deal with mass micro-publication on Twitter more effectively than 9,000 writs.

For most people, dealing with internet content is far more likely than the newspapers, yet even high-profile people who used to pray that hostile articles would be hidden in low-circulation newspapers now hope for The Times so its paywall protects their Google imprint.

For businesses and high-profile individuals both press and online are manifestations of broader reputation and privacy concerns and their legal activity must focus more towards the cause that is seldom a Fleet Street newsroom.

How our laws interact with those root issues as well as online and international publishers may not be capable of complete resolution, but the opportunity is there for Leveson LJ to suggest radical improvement.

Chris Scott is a partner at Schillings