Lord Justice Leveson condemned decades of “outrageous” behaviour by national newspapers as he called for a new regulatory system for the Press backed up by law.
Publishing a damning 2,000-page report into media standards yesterday after an eight-month inquiry, the judge said parts of the national Press had repeatedly acted as if its own code of conduct “simply did not exist”, and “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”.
His central recommendation was the establishment of a powerful new watchdog to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which he said “lacks independence” from the media and has “failed” in its role.
In stark contrast from the PCC, the new regulator would be governed by a board which is “free of influence from industry or Government”, with no serving politicians, editors or journalists being involved.
Most controversially, Lord Justice Leveson concluded it was “crucial” this body be backed up by a new law to enshrine its power and independence. The new legislation would also permanently enshrine the freedom of the Press in British law.
Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body, he said, but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
In a stark threat, Lord Justice Leveson also warned that turning Ofcom into a “backstop” regulator was an option if the industry refused to co-operate with his scheme.
In a 20-minute televised address delivered in Westminster as his report was published yesterday lunchtime, the judge made it clear that newspapers have failed to act responsibly on too many occasions over the years.
“The evidence placed before the inquiry has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there have been far too many occasions over the last decade and more when these responsibilities, on which the public so heavily rely, have simply been ignored,” he said.
“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the Press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.
“This has caused real hardship, and on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained.
“This is not just the famous, but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events – many of them truly tragic – far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by Press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous.”
The new watchdog, Lord Justice Leveson said, should have the power to issue fines of up to £1m to newspapers which fail to adhere to their own code of conduct.
It would also have the power to carry out full-scale investigations of newspapers suspected of significant breaches of the code.
But it would have no power to prevent publication of any material under any circumstances.
Another crucial role played by the new independent body would be to act as an independent arbitrator for people claiming to have been wronged the Press.
The arbitration process would be fair, inexpensive and swift – in contrast to lengthy and expensive libel actions through the courts.
The judge hoped that a series of incentives would be sufficient to convince newspaper proprietors to sign up to the new body.
These include a new “kite mark” which could be displayed by participating newspapers to assure the public of “a brand of trusted journalism”.
He also made a string of recommendations that would tighten the rules about data protection in relation to journalists, and for a beefing-up of the Information Commissioner’s role in overseeing such issues.
“The ball moves back into the politicians’ court,” the judge said in his concluding remarks.
“They must now decide who guards the guardians.”