Lord Justice Leveson has recommended a new statutory body to regulate the press in his long-awaited inquiry report – but Prime Minister David Cameron says he is “wary” of such a change.
The 2,000-page report called for the Press Complaints Commission to swept away and replaced by a new system underpinned by statute.
But in a Commons statement, Mr Cameron said that while the current system of regulation was no longer “fit for purpose,” he was not convinced that new legislation was necessary.
“We should think very carefully before crossing this line…The danger is that this would create a vehicle for polticiians to impose regulations on the press,” he told MPs.
Mr Cameron said there would now be cross-party talks with Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in a bid to forge consensus on the issue.
However Mr Miliband called for the report to accepted in its entirety, saying there could be “no more last chance saloon,” while Mr Clegg also backed the call for statutory underpinning of the new regulator.
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson said neither editors nor politicians should be involved in the new independent body, which would have the power to impose fines of up to £1m on newspapers that break the standards code.
Speaking at a news conference in Westminster, he also said his new regulatory model “should not provide an added burden to the regional and local press” which he praised as making an “unparallelled” contribution to local life.
The report explicitly rejects PCC chairman Lord Hunt’s plan for a contractual system of self-regulation.
Lord Justice Leveson said: “Although this model is an improvement on the PCC in my view it does not come close to delivering regulation that is genuinely free and independent of the industry it regulates and of political control.
“Any model with editors on the main board is simply not independent of the industry. It is still the industry marking its own homework.
“The press needs to establish a new body which is genuinely independent of industry leaders and of politicians.”
In the report, the judge said the press had repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
He also called for the scrapping of the term”off the record briefings” saying they should either be called “non reportable briefings,” which would be for background only, and “embargoed briefings.”
The proposed new independent board, to which he Lord Justice Leveson has not so far given a name, would be responsible for press standards, complaints and arbitration.
Its chair and members would be chosen by an appointment panel which would include no more than one current editor and a “substantial majority of members who are demonstrably independent of the press.”
The board itself would not include any serving editor, nor any serving member of the House of Commons and would police a standards code similar to the current Editor’s Code.
It would have the power to impose fines of up to 1pc of turnover or £1m on any ‘subscriber’ found responsible for “serious or systematic breaches” of the code.
Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
The report said: “The sanctions that should be available should include power to require publication of corrections, if the breaches relate to accuracy, or apologies if the breaches relate to other provisions of the code.”
As well as policing standards and handling complaints, the new regulator would provide warning notifications to the press in respect of people subjected to unwanted intrusion and issue guidance on the interpretation of the “public interest” in specific cases.
It would also establish a whistle-blowing hotline for journalists who feel they are being asked to act in an unethical manner, and encourage publications to include “conscience clauses” in staff contracts protecting them if they refuse.
Lord Justice Leveson claimed that his proposals did not amount to state control over the press.
“Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press,” he said.
“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.”
“The legislation would “enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press … provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met,” he said.