Perils of regulation

Accordingly, the Leveson report recommends the establishment of a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation. It suggests that an independent regulatory body be established, with the dual role of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals. In order to ensure independence, it proposes that the board and chair of the regulatory body all be appointed through fair and open processes. The board should comprise a majority that is independent of the press yet include a sufficient number of people with experience of the industry. The latter may be former editors and senior or academic journalists, but they cannot be serving editors or members of parliament or the government.

The new body and the industry would have to agree on the question of funding. Submitting to the supervision of the regulator would be voluntary but participation would be incentivised by the prospect of belonging to an arbitral system that would give significant cost and damages advantages in libel or privacy actions.

However, the most controversial feature of the report is a recommendation for legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system. Leveson takes pains to note that what is proposed is an "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". Be that as it may, the report does not take into account the possibility of a well-meaning statutory intervention today being reshaped incrementally in the future into a charter of overzealous encroachment and control. The road towards state control tends to begin, as ever, with mild intentions.

Other facets of the report are questionable too. Proposals to tighten data protection laws so that journalists could collect personal information only when they intended to publish it could hamper investigative journalism. The idea of the Office of Communications, the broadcasting regulator, supervising the proposed press regulator seems to conflate two different regimes without thinking through its institutional implications. The elephant in the report is the absence of specific commentary on social media and the internet. By focusing solely on the press, the report overlooks a broader reality.

... contd.

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