Low-cost litigation plan is Leveson's master-stroke: Could it offer a statutory solution that the press can stomach? - Press Gazette

Low-cost litigation plan is Leveson's master-stroke: Could it offer a statutory solution that the press can stomach?

Lord Justice Leveson’s 2,000 page magnum opus wasn’t exactly a page turner. But while his prose may have been plodding, his recommendations didn’t disappoint.

No-one can fault the rigour that he has brought to this job and the dispassionate way he set about it. And for my money, I found myself agreeing with much of what he had to say.

His masterstroke is the idea that low-cost litigation will be bound into the new regulator. This means that any serious publisher will have to join or else risk massive libel costs if they don’t.

Leveson’s argument is that those who count themselves out of the low-cost arbitration system would leave themselves open to paying all their own costs even if they win at trial – and also face possible 'exemplary damages' as the penalty for being an unregulated publisher.

It’s been argued that Leveson has ignored the internet. But any serious online news publisher would have to be part of the new system.

Leveson says the new regulator has to be genuinely independent. The Hunt-Black plan as it stands continues to give the owners 50-per-cent of the four-person ruling board and power of veto over the appointment of the chairman. Like the editors of the FT, Guardian, Independent, Times and Standard I agree that moves must be made to ensure the new regulator is genuinely independent of the bosses who, like the Government, are not perfect and could in the future seek to exercise their power to control and censor.

The whistle-blowing system sounds like common sense. Under the old PCC, if a News of the World journalist had called them up to say that phone-hacking was happening on an industrial scale at the paper in 2006 they would have been ignored. The old PCC did not investigate matters under its own volition and only dealt with formal complaints based on published work. This obviously has to change.

As for the proposed conscience clause in journalists' contracts, under current employment law it would be a very foolhardy publisher who challenged a tribunal brought by a journalist sacked for declining to breach the Editors’ Code. But that protection does need to be improved, so that the Editors’ Code is also seen as the Journalists’ Code – with all members of the profession empowered to make sure it is upheld.

The  only part of the Leveson regulation recommendaitons which really jarred for me was the idea that a new law needs to be written to support the independent press regulator, and the idea that the watchdog of the watchdog would be Ofcom.

By binding the new regulator into the apparatus of the state we would indeed be crossing the Rubicon as Cameron said yesterday – setting off on a course of action from which there would be no turning back and the consequences of which would be impossible to predict.

And even a law guaranteeing press freedom would be open to abuse and varying interpretation.

But is there a third-way, a sort of statutory-underpinning 'lite' that everyone could sign up to?

The low-cost litigation arbitration service will require new legislation. Even the Daily Mail would be unlikely with legal changes to a libel system which all publishers agree needs to change.

In that legislation the Government can set out that in order for this arbitration service to continue to have legal backing, the new press regulator will have to be independent and effective.

If, at some point in the future, the industry lapses back into its bad old ways then that protection from crippling libel costs would be removed.

This would be nowhere near as unpalatable to the industry as coming under Ofcom (the only part of Leveson's report which in my view does pass Cameron's 'bonkers' test).

But it could provide the necessary statutory backing to give the new regulator real backbone and longevity.



Press Gazette's must-read weekly newsletter featuring interviews, data, insight and investigations.