Maggie Jones on the urgent need to act on public anger over Leveson revelations
Today the Lords has a long awaited debate on the Leveson report. The fact that 55 peers are down to speak clearly indicates the House’s determination to take the issue seriously, with a high level, uniquely well informed debate with a great deal to offer the current cross party talks.
Labour is determined that the voices and experiences of the victims of press injustice remain foremost in our consideration of the report. Many of those who gave evidence had to relive the pain and trauma of their abuse by the press, but they did so with courage and determination. Their stories made most decent people feel moved, incredulous, appalled and very angry.
The picture that unfolded was not just about illegal acts such as phone hacking, but also more underhand acts of deception, breaches of privacy and a ‘reckless disregard for accuracy’ in pursuit of copy at any cost. Leveson concluded that there were far too many times when the press acted as if its own voluntary Code of Practice simply did not exist and described the press behaviour at times as being ‘outrageous’.
So we cannot go on as we have in the past. The challenge now is to find a model of independent self regulation, guaranteed by law, with which the public and the victims can have confidence.
Labour has drawn up a draft Press Freedom and Trust Bill as a contribution to the cross party discussions. It will be debated alongside any alternative proposals tabled, including those of the government. We are not wedded to our wording but believe that it meets the fundamental criteria established by Leveson as well as reassuring the victims that their concerns have been addressed.
Our Bill would enshrine the rights of a free press and ensure that politicians cannot meddle in newspaper content. It recognises that a free, irreverent, investigative press is central to UK’s democracy. Our proposals would also ensure that there is a legal guarantee that the regulator will be effective and independent with a judges’ panel verifying the role of an independent Press Standards Trust.
The government has tabled proposals for an independent regulator to be underpinned by a Royal Charter. We however, have a number of concerns about this model – not least that it places too greater concentration of power in the hands of Ministers advising the monarch, rather than Parliament.
What is clear is that a purely voluntary code which is not underpinned by law is not acceptable. The newspapers have too much baggage – promises made and broken, with seven enquiries in less than 70 years all resolved by a commitment to voluntary reform which ended with a Press Complaints Commission so embarrassingly ineffective it announced its own abolition.
Instead we need a new regime where potential victims can have access to meaningful and proportionate redress – one where the press systematically correct errors, and where the funding of content is transparent and the truth can be relied upon to underpin each story.
In putting forward these issues in today’s debate, we very much hope that contributions from around the chamber will agree that the challenge of Leveson, and the concerns of the victims, can be met by a new system of independent self regulation underpinned by statute.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Culture and Media Minister in the Lords
Published 11th January 2013