History in the making

The Leveson Report should be forward looking and help protect responsible public interest journalism, says Gill Phillips

Gill Phillips
Gill Phillips

Whatever comes out of this, it’s a big historic opportunity. I don’t expect the report is going to make very comfortable reading in terms of what it has to say about the past ethics and practices of the press. Nor will the police or politicians come off lightly.

It should, however, recognise that many of the allegations about press abuses that came out during the inquiry were historic and that there is little if any evidence of those practices continuing today, and it should avoid tarring all the media with the same brush.

I don’t think its recommendations will impact much on the substantive law. There is already an awful lot of civil law – including a nascent Defamation Bill – and criminal law that focuses on what is published, as well as on certain extreme routes of information gathering such as phone and email hacking.

What the report will concentrate on is regulation not law. Despite what some say, the reality is we have not so far had a proper independent press regulator. I hope the report will steer clear of statute and will recommend a strong robust form of independent regulation. We haven’t been there before and now is the chance to try it.

So I am looking forward to the report recommending a modern, crisp, voluntary model of independent regulation that helps raise standards, inspires public trust, fits within the current statutory landscape, and works to ensure workable standards for the wider public. Any form of compulsion around membership mixed with statute is licensing and is likely to fall foul of the European Convention.

I hope the recommendations will contain some positive suggestions around strengthening and protecting responsible public interest journalism. I expect the report to focus on pre-publication matters – the processes around how information is gathered and used. I hope it stays away from interfering with editorial discretion, which the courts have long recognised should be left to editors.

Gill Phillips is director of editorial legal services at Guardian News & Media