The Leveson Report: One More Round At The Last Chance Saloon?Posted: November 29, 2012
[First published in The Morning Star, 30/11/2012. See here for my previous posts on Leveson and the massive blind spot of employment law.]
More than twenty years ago, Home Office minister David Mellor told an interviewer he believed the popular press was “drinking in the Last Chance Saloon” in terms of self-regulation. So was yesterday’s Leveson report the last call we expected?
In Lord Justice Leveson’s own words:
“…what is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership.”
But what does that really mean? It’s a massive four-volume report, but here are a few things I’ve distilled so far.
Leveson recommends the industry present regulator OfCom with an organisational model where its chair and board members are independent of both the working industry and politics: former journalists, editors, civil servants and MPs may be allowed, but none sitting. These appointments should be made by a second independent appointment panel with a “substantial majority demonstrably independent of the press”, specifically no sitting editors.
The National Union of Journalists has already hailed Leveson’s comments on the adoption of a whistleblower hotline and a conscience clause in reporters’ contracts so they can safely refuse unethical assignments.
But Leveson is actually rather cagey on the issue, saying it is not his role to tell the new self-regulators how to go about their business. He says the body “should” set up a hotline, but merely “consider” requiring members to provide their staff with a conscience clause. There’s also a much broader issue I haven’t seen addressed, which is the industry’s increasingly common use of casual contracts, coupled with the Con-Dems’ two-year probationary period for all new hires. Even if this new body nudges its members to adopt the clause, the legislative landscape still gives unscrupulous employers plenty of wiggle room to dismiss those whose inconveniently earnest faces don’t quite fit. I don’t think it’s a stretch either; the NUJ and individual reporters brought these issues up in their testimony time and time again.
Leveson is much more solid on addressing complaints outside the newsrooms, recommending it provide an arbitration service recognised by the courts, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and give it the power to fine members and order corrections and apologies. Membership would still be voluntary but if a publisher refused to join that could count against them in court, losing them litigation costs and even incurring exemplary damages. Leveson says this “should provide a powerful incentive” to join. We’ll see.
Leveson adds that he recognises the industry could potentially “be unable or unwilling” to meet his criteria. Should “that regrettable event” arise, he has no recommendations, but says the government could grant Ofcom powers to act as a “backstop regulator” — the spectre of statutory regulation. I’ve yet to track down just what the other options are. Stay tuned.