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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Newspaper websites 'would move abroad under statutory watchdog'

Leveson inquiry-Lord Black argued against
statutory regulation of the press.

Lord Black backs self-regulation at Leveson inquiry, claiming that a statutory body would face constant legal challenges
-The Guardian
Newspapers would move their websites abroad to escape UK law or repeatedly seek to take the new press watchdog to court, if the government introduced statutory controls, a leading figure in the industry has warned.Lord Black, the chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, which funds the Press Complaints Commission, told the Leveson inquiry that the "vast bulk of the industry remained opposed" to statutory regulation and warned of the consequences if laws were imposed. "If there was a statutory system there may be some publishers who decide, 'we'll try and get out of this and domicile our websites or whatever' - it might be abroad," warned Black.
He also told the inquiry that a statutory system would lay the regulator open to constant legal challenges.Newspapers that were opposed to decisions taken by the watchdog on complaints or allegations of invasion of privacy and libel could seek legal redress, added Black."If there was a statute, I think it would mean that there was constant legal challenge to the decisions of a regulator," he said.He told the inquiry that the new system he was proposing represented "a completely fresh start" and said that if a statutory system was imposed on "a majority of unwillingly publishers" the new regulator was "likely to become a target to be aimed at rather than ... a framework ... worked for the benefit of the public and the public interest."

Black has submitted weighty proposals for reform of the self-regulatory system that he says will result in a tougher system than anything statutory changes could bring, including the powers to fine newspapers up to £1m. However under questioning by Robert Jay, the counsel for the inquiry, he conceded that not all newspapers were in agreement that self-regulation was the best way to deal with incidents which have damaged the industry's reputation at governing itself. Incidents such as the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone or the maligning of innocent people, such as the Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies who was caught up in the Joanna Yeates murder inquiry, have hugely damaged faith in the self-regulatory system.

The publishers of the Independent, the Guardian and the Financial Times all see the possibility of some sort of statutory underpinning for press reforms, said Black, but none was proposing "fully-fledged" statutory controls.He said he was proposing was "an extremely tough system" that "probably goes further than a statutory system could" and would have "muscular new powers of investigation and enforcement". In a robust session, it was put to Black that the newspaper industry had put together a set of proposals that preserve the status quo.

"Your system merely reflects what some would say the industry wishes to get away with. Do you see that?" asked Jay.Black said he believed the public wanted a system that would deal with the aggrieved, while also thinking "We don't want the chilling impact which flows from state intervention to have an impact on how our newspapers scrutinise those who are in positions of power." Black was also asked if the industry had undertaken any consultation with the public, to which he answered no, and was questioned about the continued need for 12 serving editors to sit on the committee which would set the code of practice for journalists.

"Why does it need to be the editors' code? Why isn't it simply a code of conduct?" asked Leveson who asked why editors should "have the pen to write it".The Leveson inquiry also scrutinised Black's proposals for a new complaints unit that would also have five working editors along with seven lay members. Black argued that the experience of editors "can get out of date extremely quickly" and this body would have to deal with a "variety of complaints in a fast-moving area".Jay put it to Black that "that creates a perception at the very least of lack of independence rather than the presence of independence, doesn't it?"

Leveson praised Lord Black's work in colourful language towards the end of the morning session – but also made it clear that he was not necessarily prepared to endorse his work. The judge said "I see blood all over this document" – referring to the effort put in by Black and his team.Giving few clues as to his ultimate thinking, the judge said: "I understand that it hasn't been easy. You have done exactly what you said you would do and created a model which you believe the industry will sign up to and which I then have to consider."


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