I am grateful for the opportunity to make a further statement to the House. I know it is unusual, but this is an unusual debate.
The terms of reference for Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry were agreed on a cross-party basis and, as the House has heard, we intend to proceed on a cross-party basis, so it is right that Parliament is clear on the initial views of the whole coalition. I agree with much of what has already been said by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition concerning the principles of the Leveson report. That bodes well for the cross-party talks that are taking place for the first time later this afternoon, which in my view must establish an early and clear timetable for the decisions that we must take so that the momentum for action is not lost.
I thank Lord Justice Leveson for his extremely thorough report. There are two big liberal principles at play in this debate: on the one hand, the belief that a raucous and vigorous press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy, and on the other, the belief that the vulnerable, the innocent and the weak should be protected from powerful vested interests. A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or free to abuse grieving families.
What I want now is for us to strike a better balance between these two liberal principles so that our media can scrutinise the powers that be, but cannot destroy innocent lives; so that the journalists up in the Press Gallery can hold us, the politicians, to account, but we can look up to the individuals and families in the Public Gallery knowing that they have the right protections in place.
I have always said that I would support Lord Justice Leveson’s reforms, providing they are proportionate and workable. I will come on to why I believe that is the case as far as the report’s core proposal is concerned–namely, a tougher system of self-regulation, supported by new independent checks recognised in law. But I do not want to disguise the fact that I have some specific concerns about some specific recommendations–for example, on some of his ideas concerning data protection rules, and on the suggestion that it should be Ofcom which independently verifies the new press watchdog.
Ofcom has a key role in regulating the content of broadcast media. I am yet to be convinced that it is best placed to take on this new, light-touch function with the print media too. Lord Justice Leveson said in his report that this function could be fulfilled by a different body. However, on the basic model of a new self-regulatory body, established with a change to the law, in principle I believe this can be done in a proportionate and workable way. I understand the entirely legitimate reasons why some Members of the House are wary of using legislation. I myself have thought long and hard about this.
I am a liberal. I do not make laws for the sake of it, and certainly not when it comes to the press. Indeed, when I gave my own evidence to the inquiry, I made the point that if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all the major players without any changes to the law, of course we should consider that. But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that.
Lord Justice Leveson has considered these issues at length. He has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation that seeks to cover all of the press. He explains why his proposed system of sticks and carrots has to be recognised in statute in order to be properly implemented by the courts. What is more, changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator is not just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good. Someone will need to check periodically that the independence of the regulator has not been weakened over time, and the report explains why that needs to be set out in law. As Lord Justice Leveson himself states, “this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press”.
It is a voluntary system, based on incentives, with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation.
It is worth dwelling on that point for a moment, because although there has rightly been a lot of discussion about the risks of legislating, some key arguments have been missing from the debate so far. First, the press does not operate in some kind of lawless vacuum; it has to abide by the law. In many instances it is already protected by the law, and I agree with the report that we should go further in enshrining the freedom of the press in statute.
Secondly, it has been suggested that using law will blur the line between politicians and the media, but we must not ignore the extent to which that line has already been blurred under the current system of self-regulation. It is the status quo which has allowed such cosy relationships between political and media elites to arise in the first place. Let us not forget that that of the five Press Complaints Commission chairs, three were serving parliamentarians who took a party whip. Far from allowing greater overlap, the laws that have been proposed give us a chance to create a hard wall between politics and the press.
Thirdly, as the report notes, there is already an example of statutory underpinning in the Irish Press Council, which has been accepted by a number of UK newspapers. The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members–they all publish Irish editions. I have not yet heard those papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish sea.
Of course, neither I nor anyone can be certain of exactly how the proposals will look until we have worked them up in detail. The two tests I have set–that any reforms must be workable and proportionate–will need to be met in practice as much as in principle.
If they are not, I will be the first to sound the alarm. In that event, we would then need to consider how to make progress, because the absolute worst outcome in all this would be for nothing to happen at all.
We must not now prevaricate. I, like many people, am impatient for reform. Put bluntly, nothing I have seen so far in this debate suggests to me that we will find a better solution than the one that has been proposed; nor do I draw any hope from the repeated failure of pure self-regulation that we have seen over the past 60 years. We need to get on with this without delay. We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing–too long for an independent press watchdog in which they can put their trust. I am determined that we should not make them wait any more. I commend this statement to the House.