Standard bearer

Whatever comes out of the Leveson Report, it should be remembered that its author only has the power to recommend, says Charlotte Harris

Charlotte Harris
Charlotte Harris

There appears to be agreement that the press must be regulated. The question is, should that be self regulation or an independent regulator?

As lawyers, we are regulated by the Bar Council and the Law Society, and judges are appointed by parliament. We consider ourselves to be independent and not state regulated. However, many high-profile and key individuals in the press industry have expressed great concern that a similar statutory underpinning of the press will affect its independence. The worry is so immense that some newspapers are predicting a Stalinist state. This is not true.

As with lawyers, judges, doctors, banks and many other professions, a government statute guarantees independence. It is expected that Lord Leveson will recommend a new system of regulation that will be recognised in statute.

It is hoped that such a system will be one that promotes press freedom. For example, there has been speculation that a new statutory defence for investigative journalism will be suggested, to ensure that public interest reporting such as the MP’s expenses will continue to flourish.

It is also thought that there may be a tribunal or system of arbitration that would benefit both press and victims of the press. Essentially, the new system may well impose the existing Editor’s Code. At the moment, the press itself decides whether or not they have breached the code. Many believe the status quo is unsatisfactory given the commercial interests of the proprietors in a somewhat concentrated British media.

It is unlikely that Lord Leveson will recommend that there is to be any restriction of publication. It is not a matter of contract (which is the basis of the Hunt/Black plan). It is the consequences of breaches and unethical behaviour after publication.

Fair press campaigners believe that an independent panel recognised by law will ensure that the press learns its lesson as it will no longer be in a position to abuse its powers again. An effective system will be one that ensures that newspapers and websites meet proper standards and are accountable for what they publish.

What ought to be remembered is that Lord Leveson only has the power to recommend.

Charlotte Harris is a partner at Mishcon de Reya