By Simon Sapper
Well, I have to admit to being impressed by LJ Leveson’s delivery earlier today. It was much more emphatic than I had expected. The clarity he offered – on the role of the press, where he felt there had been failure, the limits of his preferred legislation – was welcome. But the detail is only now starting to emerge.
To my mind there was an element of contradiction in the report – the plans promoted by Lords Hunt and Black were described as being a “long way indeed” away from what he has said is required. Yet in the new regulatory model he seeks, there is so very much that the PCC has already embraced and which there seems to be a broad industry consensus in support of.
So the only substantive difference seems to be statutory underpinning – with this almost a simile for independence, and LJ Leveson gave welcome commentary on what he thought that might look like.
In response, PCC Chair David Hunt has already said that he sees an opportunity to make progress towards the reformed, strengthened self-regulation of the press sought by the enquiry. And the PM has encouraged the press to do this, many times, in this afternoon’s debate.
There also seems to be a growing acknowledgement that the newspapers and periodicals should be given an opportunity to, as Shami Chakrabarti said, “show willing”.
So the message possibly is if the industry can seize the opportunity, and can create the structure that Leveson has described, then why would legislation be needed?
Well you only have to listen to the steadfastness of Leveson’s remarks, and the comments of, for example, Hacked Off, to understand that not to legislate would be a high-risk option, for the Prime Minister. And the debate taking place in the Commons seems to bear this out.
So at this early stage, the most obvious questions for me are (1) how to respond to the invitation repeatedly made to go further than we have done so far and (2) how would the desired legislation actually be put into practice – both politically and legislatively.
I’ve not had the chance to download let alone open the substantive report, so I would be foolish to rush to any detailed conclusions. But I believe that the PCC has a role – a responsibility even – to continue to provide the range of services on complaints, desist notices, training, mediation and the rest, until a successor organisation is set up. Thousands of people use these each year. The PCC – that is the organisation with a clear lay majority – is also well placed to contribute to the debate. There is a body of expertise and experience there that should be put increasingly at the disposal of the reform programme. (I know the views of some on the left about the PCC, but if it disappeared tomorrow, there’s no-one to pick up the work it does).
I’m on record as saying the press will get the sort of regulation that they are deserve – or are prepared to pay for. I stand by that. I’m also on record as saying the industry as a whole could be historically regarded as “compliance averse”. They now need to shed their inhibitions if they are to pick up the fascinating and vital challenge that has been laid down. “The press need to establish….” Leveson said. The PM has agreed. Even if Ed’s call for progress on legislation is adopted, there is still so much is left to play for – much to gain and much to lose.
Simon Sapper is a lay Press Complaints Commissioner. He writes here in a personal capacity.