October 2016 – Leveson Inquiry and Press Regulators

October 2016 – Leveson Inquiry and Press Regulators

Thank you for contacting me about the freedom of the press and the Leveson Inquiry.

Free speech underpins our democracy and the Government has always been clear it is vitally important to uphold it. For this reason, the Government does not interfere with what the press does and does not publish, as long as the press abides by the law.

I am encouraged that the Government will continue to defend hard-won liberties and the operation of a free press. But alongside the media’s rights comes a clear responsibility, which is why the public, judge-led Leveson Inquiry was set up in response to the phone-hacking scandal, and why the Government created a new watchdog by Royal Charter and legislated to toughen media libel laws.

Following the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and practice of the press, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was created, which ensures the press upholds the highest standards of journalism by monitoring and maintaining the standards set out in the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO also provides support and a means of redress for individuals seeking to complain about breaches of the code.
Consequently we now have two potential press regulators, both of which are independent, running self-regulatory systems with sanctions, and certainly represent a considerable improvement on the Press Complaints Commission, which went before. It is still early days and obviously we will watch carefully to see how the new system operates and whether it is delivering the proper protection that we all want to see to ensure that the abuses that have taken place in the past do not happen again.  I would therefore not, at this stage, be in favour of any punitive action against media outlets that are participating in IPSO but not the alternate regulator.  Of course IPSO’s effectiveness should be monitored and reviewed but I do believe it is both independent and taking its responsibilities very seriously, and in line with the spirit of public concern and the Leveson inquiry, and therefore should be allowed an opportunity to function.
In the United Kingdom there are some restrictions on what can be published. Things which could be libellous or slanderous cannot be published unless the writers and publishers reasonably believe the statement to be true; honestly hold that opinion of somebody; or consider the publication to be in the public interest.  It is right that a media outlet pays costs for a libel or slander action it loses, but I would consider it a threat to press freedom for media outlets which are currently members of IPSO but not of the alternative regulator to be forced to pay costs for both successful and unsuccessful libel and slander actions brought against them (the so called “Leveson incentive”).  This would, in my view, invite vexatious complaints from individuals seeking to damage an media outlet for other reasons, rather than to seek redress for harm.

I firmly believe that a free press is vitally important in a democracy and will speak in favour of a system that safeguards that as well as providing an effective system of redress for complaints.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.