With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on today’s report from Lord Justice Leveson.
As we consider this report, we should consider the victims. We should remember how the parents of Millie Dowler, at their most vulnerable moment, had their daughter’s phone hacked and were followed and photographed.
How Christopher Jefferies’ reputation was destroyed by false accusations. And how the mother of Madeleine McCann, Kate McCann, had her private diary printed without her permission and how she and her husband were falsely accused of keeping their daughter’s body in their freezer.
These victims - and many other innocent people who have never sought the limelight - have suffered in a way that we can barely begin to imagine.
That is why last Summer I asked Lord Justice Leveson to lead an independent inquiry.
It had the power to see any document and summon any witness under oath, to be examined by a barrister, in public.
It has been, as Lord Justice Leveson says, “the most public and the most concentrated look at the press that this country has seen”.
And I would like to thank Lord Justice Leveson and his entire team for the work they have undertaken.
Mr Speaker, Lord Justice Leveson makes findings and recommendations in three areas: on the relationship between the press and the police; on the relationship between the press and politicians; and on the relationship between the press and the public.
Let me take each in turn.
First, the press and the police.
Lord Justice Leveson makes clear that he doesn’t find a basis for challenging the integrity of the police.
But he does raise a number of areas which he felt were a cause for public concern such as tip-offs, off-the-record briefings and more broadly, “excessive proximity” between the press and the police.
He makes a number of recommendations including national guidance on appropriate gifts and hospitality; record-keeping of contact between very senior police officers and journalists and a 12-month ‘cooling-off’ period for senior police officers being employed by the press.
These are designed to break the perception of an excessively cosy relationship between the press and the police and we support these recommendations.
Mr Speaker, when I set up this Inquiry, I also said there would be a second part to investigate wrongdoing in the press and the police, including the conduct of the first police investigation.
This second stage cannot go ahead until the current criminal proceedings have concluded - but we remain committed to the Inquiry as it was first established.
Next, the relationship between politicians and the media.
As Lord Justice Leveson has found “over the last 30-35 years and probably much longer, the political parties of UK national Government and UK official Opposition, have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way that has not been in the public interest”.
I made this point last summer when I set up this Inquiry - and at the same time I set in train reforms to improve transparency.
This is the first government ever to publish details of meetings between senior politicians and proprietors, editors or senior executives, as Lord Justice Leveson recommends in his report.
He also recommends disclosing further information on the overall level of interaction between politicians and the press.
This would apply to all parties - and on the Government’s behalf I can say that we accept that recommendation.
Mr Speaker, during the course of this Inquiry a number of serious allegations were made and I want to deal with them directly.
First, that my party struck a deal with News International.
This is an allegation that was repeated again and again on the floor of this House - and at the Inquiry itself.
Lord Justice Leveson looked at this in detail - and rejects the allegation emphatically.
Let me read his conclusion: “the evidence does not, of course, establish anything resembling a ‘deal’ whereby News International’s support was traded for the expectation of policy favours”.
Those who repeatedly made these allegations - including Members of this House and I have to say the former Prime Minister - should now acknowledge they were wrong.
Second, it was alleged that I gave my Rt Hon Friend, the then Culture Secretary, now Health Secretary, the responsibility of handling the BSkyB bid in order to fix the outcome.
Lord Justice Leveson states clearly “the evidence does not begin to support a conclusion that the choice of Mr Hunt was the product of improper media pressure still less an attempt to guarantee a particular outcome to the process”.
Another allegation repeatedly made - and again shown to be wrong.
Third, there was the criticism that the then Culture Secretary had rigged the handling of the BSkyB bid.
Again, today’s report rejects that as well.
My Rt Hon. Friend “put in place robust systems to ensure that the remaining stages of the bid would be handled with fairness, impartiality and transparency…”
Indeed Lord Justice Leveson goes further, concluding that My Rt Hon Friend’s “extensive reliance on external advice… was a wise and effective means of helping him to keep to the statutory test”.
And he concludes “there is no credible evidence of actual bias”.
Of course as My Rt Hon Friend has said himself, there are lessons to learn about how quasi-judicial decisions are made and we must learn those lessons.
But let me say this: My Rt Hon Friend has endured a stream of allegations with great dignity.
The Report confirms something that we on this side of the House knew all along - we were right to stand by him.
And let me also say this Lord Justice Leveson finds in respect to my Rt Hon Friend the Business Secretary that he “acted with scrupulous care and impartiality”.
Next - and most important of all - let me turn to what Lord Justice Leveson says about the relationship between the press and the public.
As he says very clearly, even after 16 months of this Inquiry, he remains “…firmly of the belief that the British press - all of it - serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time.”
But on the culture, practices and ethics of some in the press, his words are very stark.
He finds that “…there have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist”.
He cites “press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous”.
He catalogues a number of examples of such behaviour, going wider than phone hacking.
He refers to “a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected”.
He finds that “when the story is just too big and the public appetite too great, there has been significant and reckless disregard for accuracy”.
And he reports “a cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course”.
Mr Speaker, in a free society, the press are subject to criminal law, civil law and requirements for data protection.
But there should be a proper regulatory system as well to ensure that standards are upheld, complaints are heard and there is proper redress for those who have been wronged.
That is what the current system should have delivered. It has not.
And as Lord Justice Leveson says: the Press Complaints Commission is “neither a regulator, nor fit for purpose to fulfil that responsibility”. And that is why changes are urgently needed.
Mr Speaker, we welcome the fact that the press industry themselves have put forward their own proposals for a new system of regulation.
But we agree with Lord Justice Leveson that these proposals do not yet go far enough.
Mr Speaker, in Volume IV of the Report, Lord Justice Leveson sets out proposals for independent self-regulation organised by the media.
He details the key “requirements” that an independent self-regulatory body should meet, including: independence of appointments and funding; a standards code; an arbitration service; and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism - crucially it must have the power to demand up-front, prominent apologies and impose million-pound fines.
These are the Leveson principles.
They are the central recommendations of the report.
If they can be put in place, we truly will have a regulatory system that delivers public confidence, justice for the victims, and a step-change in the way the press is regulated in our country. I accept these principles and I hope the whole House will come behind them and the onus should now be on the press to implement them and implement them radically.
In support of this, Lord Justice Leveson makes some important proposals.
First, some changes to the Data Protection Act that would reduce the special treatment that journalists are afforded when dealing with personal data.
We must consider this very carefully - particularly the impact this could have on investigative journalism.
While I have only been able to make preliminary investigations about this since reading the Report, I am instinctively concerned about this proposal.
Second, he proposes changes to establish a system of incentives for each newspaper to take part in the system of self-regulation.
I agree that there should be incentives and believe those ones that he sets out - such as the award of costs and exemplary damages in litigation - could be effective.
He goes on to propose legislation that would help deliver those incentives and also - crucially - provide: “an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body”.
This would, he says, “reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and would continue to be met”.
Now I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation.
They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity.
The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.
We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.
In this House - which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries - we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.
On the grounds of practicality, no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would I believe become more complicated.
Paragraphs 71 and 72 in the Executive Summary begin to set out what would be needed in the legislation if refers to, for instance, validating the standards code and recognising the powers of the new body, for example.
And if you turn to page 1772 in Volume IV of the full report, it says this about the new law: it “must identify those legitimate requirements and provide a mechanism to recognise and certify that a new body meets them”.
The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
Third, on the grounds of necessity - I am not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives.
I believe there may be alternative options for putting in place incentives, providing reassurance to the public and ensuring the Leveson principles of regulation are put in place and these options must be explored.
Mr Speaker, there are questions, including those on data protection, which are fundamental questions we must resolve in order to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
I have therefore invited the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to join me in cross-party talks, starting immediately after this statement.
Let me be clear: a regulatory system that complies with Leveson principles should be put in place rapidly. I favour giving the press a limited period of time in which to do this. They do not need to wait for all the other elements of Lord Justice Leveson’s Report to be implemented.
While no one wants to see full statutory regulation, let me stress: the status quo is not an option. Be in no doubt - we should be determined to see Lord Justice Leveson’s principles implemented.
Mr Speaker, there is much that we in this country can be proud of: the oldest democracy in the world; the freedom of speech; a free press; frank and healthy public debate.
But this Report lays bare that the system of press regulation we have is badly broken - and has let down victims badly. Our responsibility is to fix this.
The task for us now is to build this new system of press regulation that supports our great traditions of investigative journalism and of free speech but that protects the rights of the vulnerable and the innocent and commands the confidence of the whole country.
And I commend this statement to the House.