The Leveson report explained in five minutes

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The Leveson report in five easy minutes
The Leveson report in five easy minutes

The big question: Does Leveson suggest legislation?

Yes, but in the most moderate way possible. He proposes an independent self-regulatory body with a statutory underpinning. It is self-regulation because it would be set up by the industry itself. It is independent because serving editors are banned from almost all its boards, as are MPs. A majority of the board must be non-journalists. It requires statutory underpinning because it needs legal recognition showing it's serving its mission statement and also so it can offer an arbitration service recognised by the courts.
The body's role is to uphold standards of journalism and the rights of individuals. It would create a code of conduct members would be expected to abide by.

So what does the legislation do?

The legislation would not establish the body itself. Instead it recognises the ideals Leveson want from the body, like independence from parliament and the media. It also provides a mechanism to achieve them. In this case it takes the form of a separate 'recognition' body. The legislation would hand no new powers to parliament and it would not allow anyone to affect the content of newspapers, except to enforce an apology and its placement in the publication. It also validates the standards code and arbitration process.


What is the arbitration process?

This is the interesting bit. Leveson was concerned about the so-called 'Desmond problem'. Richard Desmond, who owns the Daily Express, just walked out of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) a few years ago and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. That's one problem. The other problem is that if you enforce membership that basically amounts to a government register of the press, breaking the important principle of anyone being able to be a journalist without state-approval.

Leveson's solution is to offer a quick, cheap arbitration process via membership, and to make dealing with legal disputes in the courts even more expensive than it is already. Basically: If you get involved, you save money. If you don't, you'll be crippled by payments if there's a legal dispute.

There are therefore three types of dispute resolution. For small cases, such as factual inaccuracies, member publications will be expected to have an internal system to deal with them.

For legal disputes, such as privacy or libel, the case can go through the regulator's arbitration system. This will involve retired judges and senior lawyers in an inquisitorial system which is recognised by the courts. Complaints can be made for free with the publisher meeting the cost, unless they win.

The third type will be legal cases which go through the courts instead of the regulator. These are already hugely expensive, but under Leveson's system you could end up paying litigation costs even if you win. That applies to the person launching the case as well as the publication. All the incentives are stacked to encourage you to take part in the system.

Anything else?

The body will be able to launch investigations under its own bat and can impose substantial fines of up to £1 million.

What has Leveson done about the public interest defence?

The regulator body will be expected to provide a definition of the public interest. Members of the body will be expected to show records of their considerations about public interest as decisions are made. There will be a voluntary service for those wanting assurances about the public interest in relation to a story.

Are there any other protections for journalists?

Journalists are offered a conscience clause - something long called for by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). There will also be a whistleblower hotline set up.

What does Leveson say about the police?

Leveson lets the police off relatively lightly. He says there was no widespread corruption. Individual officers are mostly praised for their integrity. 'Yates of the Yard', who refused to reopen the phone hacking investigation, is criticised though. Leveson says he should have got off the investigation when he was also having meetings with journalists from those organisations. Yates should never have made the announcement confirming he wouldn't reopen the investigation to camera. Doing so created a defensive atmosphere, Leveson said.

The judge suggested an end to 'off the record briefings' with the police. Instead they must be either open, embargoed for a later date or non-reportable – or possibly a mixture of the three. There should a one-year revolving door between people leaving the force and working for a media agency.

What about politicians?

While Leveson says the personal, individual relationships between journalists and MPs are mostly healthy, he is much critical about political parties' relationship with the media. He is scathing about New Labour's creation of a culture of spin.
He recommends that the main parties issue a statement on their relationship with the press.  He also wants senior party figures to record details of their meetings with senior industry figures when the topic is media policy. Other communications between journalists and MPs would obviously not be covered by this. The extent of communication between parties and media officials should also be recorded. Ministers would keep their quasi-judicial role but introduce greater transparency measures to prevent another row like that over Jeremy Hunt and BSkyB.

Oh yeah – what about Hunt?

Hunt is mostly exonerated. He is said to have dealt with the BSkyB bid impartially. However he is criticised for using his special adviser Adam Smith as a conduit for the Murdoch clan and for not supervising him properly.

He exonerates Cameron for putting Hunt in that position and Cable for his own handling of the case.

In summary?

He's done what he can. He put everyone's buzz words in there – he offered a beefed-up regulator with legislation to back it up, but preserved self-regulation and put in failsafes to make it independent of parliament and the press. Frankly, it's hard to see how anyone could have done more to make a prescription palatable to the press and all three political parties. It's telling that he ends his executive summary with a long quote from John Major saying it's politicians who now have a duty to see this thing through. Leveson has made it as tolerable as possible. We'll see if that's enough for the political and media class.

 

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