Everybody understands the importance of having a free press. The ability of our newspapers to be uncensored in what they publish is one of the things a democratic Britain has prided itself on. However, the phone-hacking scandal has caused outrage both among the public and in Parliament, for the behaviour of the press towards not only celebrities but people like the McCanns or the Dowlers.
The Leveson Inquiry was established in order to look into the problems raised by the phone hacking scandal and to provide the best solution. However, there are doubts over Leveson’s proposals that what the press needs is an independent regulatory body underpinned by a new statutory basis. Politicians are now divided as to whether the recommendations should be followed.
The campaign group ‘Hacked Off’, supported by celebrities such as Hugh Grant, welcome Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals. In their minds the press has already failed to regulate itself and therefore only independent regulation can be trusted.
This is also the course of action backed by Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. However, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and others, such as Shami Chakrabati of the group ‘Liberty’, feel that such legislation would contravene free press and article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights on free speech.
Just as significant is the fact that there would be no way to force a newspaper group to sign up to the independent regulatory scheme.
It is common for politicians to be seen taking a different stance to their opposition, but it begs the question whether David Cameron dismissed the proposals too quickly. Victims of the phone hacking scandal, like Gerry McCann, have raised concerns that David Cameron has not considered adequate alternative protection against this kind of behaviour in future.
More significantly around £4 million of taxpayers’ money has gone into the Leveson Inquiry. Although David Cameron does have the prerogative as Prime Minister to ignore the findings of the inquiry, a complete rejection of the proposals seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money. This has prompted many MPs to call for Parliament to have a ‘free vote’ on the matter, where MPs are not bound by the party whip.
Most of us understand a free press as one that is not censored. If any legislation were to be implemented that lead to restrictions on what a newspaper could write about then this would appear to border on the selective censorship that occurs in countries like Russia.
An independent regulatory body that simply ensures that the press do not commit illegalities like phone hacking, would focus more on the means of obtaining a story rather than regulating the story itself. This is unlikely to threaten freedom of speech in the press.
Whether there will be a press law or not is still undecided. The Prime Minister has asked for draft legislation to be drawn up, but he also has urged newspapers to accept the proposals for an independent regulatory body in an attempt to ensure that there would be no need for statutory underpinning. He faces opposition from both sides, as do the other political party leaders and it would seem that whatever the outcome no balance will be struck.