Leveson report: UK parties criticised, Salmond vindicated

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  By a Newsnet reporter

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to accept the main finding of the Leveson Report, which was published today. 

In his report following a nine month long investigation and inquiry into press ethics and practices, Lord Justice Leveson recommended that a new independent press regulatory body be established, and that legislation should be introduced in order to allow courts to enforce the new regulators findings.

Lord Leveson said the government should legislate to enshrine freedom of the press in the UK in law, and that legislation was necessary in order to ensure that the new regulatory body had teeth.  He insisted that such a measure did not amount to state control of the press.  The recommendation was not the solution favoured by the media industry, which had pressed for a stronger system of self-regulation.

As he presented his 1,987 page long report, Lord Leveson stressed that he had no intention of undermining press freedom, but that the press had at times “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people” and was sometimes guilty of “outrageous” behaviour.

The report contained some scathing criticism of the UK’s press, saying that newspaper editors displayed a “culture of indifference to individual privacy and dignity”.  Despite the findings of the report, and the shocking evidence it heard of press intrusion damaging the lives and reputations of ordinary individuals, Lord Leveson suggested that sections of the press are still “in denial” about the effect their reports have on private citizens.  

In particular the report highlighted the evidence given by the editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre, which Lord Leveson said, “supported a general conclusion that there is a cultural unwillingness in parts of the press to consider the consequences of publication on the individuals involved.”

He also called for a new relationship between the police and the media, in order to avoid “inappropriate relationships” which may have arisen in the past.

However when addressing the Commons within a few hours of publication of the Leveson report, Mr Cameron said that he had “serious concerns and misgivings” about the recommendations in the report.  Mr Cameron signalled that he was not willing to introduce the legislation recommended by the report.

Mr Cameron said:  “For the first time we will have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should think very very carefully before crossing this line… I’m not convinced at this stage that statute is required to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.”

The Prime Minister’s unwillingness to legislate opens up a breach between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners.  The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg responded to the report separately from Mr Cameron and said that, unlike the Prime Minister, he was in favour of new legislation to give a future press regulator statutory powers.

Mr Clegg’s comments suggest that it will be impossible to reach a cross-party consensus on the Leveson findings, and the Coalition Government may split along party lines on the issue.  Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that he will support the full implentation of the report’s findings.

The PM’s refusal to back the Leveson findings, despite previous indications that he would do so, provoked a furious response from organisations representing the victims of mistreatment at the hands of the press.  ‘Hacked Off’, an organisation set up to represent victims of press abuse, said it welcomed the Leveson report but warned Cameron’s opposition risked neutering the recommendations.

Brian Cathcart, founder of the campaign, said:  “The prime minister has not done his job. His failure to accept the full recommendations of the report is unfortunate and regrettable.

“In tearing out from this report the element of scrutiny on the self-regulator, he has left us with only a self-regulator.  That is where we were before.  That is where we have been for 60 or 70 years.”

Parties in Scotland have aired the possibility of cross-party talks in order to implement the Leveson findings in Scotland, where the law is significantly different.  First Minister Alex Salmond will consult opposition parties before making a final decision with a view to setting up a panel headed by a senior judge to explore how the report’s findings are implemented.

Mr Salmond said: “I am supportive of the conclusions of Lord Leveson, who has set out clearly the difference between statutory regulation of the press on the one hand and the argument for statutory underpinning of self-regulation on the other.”

Scottish Greens have welcomed the prospect of cross-party talks about a distinctly Scottish response to the Leveson proposals on regulation of the press.

Patrick Harvie, MSP for Glasgow and Co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said:

“Scotland has a proud tradition of journalism but the industry’s self-regulation has clearly failed and we can’t duck the issue any longer. It would be quite bizarre for a pro-independence Government to leave this to Westminster. The Leveson report demands action to restore public trust and I believe the Scottish Parliament should use its powers in this area.

“However, the First Minister would be wrong to rule out statutory regulation before talks take place. This is a real opportunity to ensure that regulation is truly independent from corporate control, and protects essential freedoms, roots out bad journalism and properly protects people’s privacy.”

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont suggested that the Scottish Parliament should not introduce a separate system for Scotland.  The Labour MSP suggested that a UK wide system would be more desirable and took a swipe at the First Minister.

Ms Lamont said: “On the face of it, what Lord Leveson is recommending looks sensible.

“I am not convinced that there is need for a separate press regulation system in Scotland, but, after reading Lord Leveson’s comments in his report, I am convinced that Alex Salmond is not the man to lead any form of press regulation.”

Alex Salmond vindicated

In his report, Lord Levenson strongly criticised UK politicians for their fawning attitude towards senior media executives.  However he explicitly exempted the devolved administrations from this criticism, saying that he found no evidence that the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish parties had acted in any way which might cause concern.

The Scottish National Party have highlighted the section of Lord Leveson’s Report (page 1438, Volume 3) on the “generic conclusions” of the “too close” relationship between politicians and the press, which criticises UK parties for a failure to serve the public interest and for developing too close a relationship with the media.  He accused senior UK politicians of all three main parties of behaviour which made them “vulnerable to influences which are neither known about or transparent”.

Lord Levenson specifically excludes the parties of devolved governments from this finding, stating that he found no evidence that – unlike UK party leaders – the SNP leader and other politicians from the devolved administrations had formed too cosy a relationship with media and press barons.  

Writing of Mr Salmond’s contacts with Rupert Murdoch, Lord Leveson wrote that the First Minister “cannot be criticised” for his offer to lobby the UK government on behalf of the news organisation.  Lord Leveson concluded:

“I have absolutely no doubt that Mr Salmond was motivated by an anxiety to help Scottish employment and to benefit Scotland generally: that is entirely laudable and exactly what is the expectation and proper function of the First Minister. How far that should be taken, however, is another matter.”  

Lord Levenson’s findings directly contradict the accusations of opposition parties within Scotland who have claimed that Alex Salmond had too close a relationship with Rupert Murdoch.  Lord Levenson found the opposite to be the case with the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats, whom Lord Levenson said “have not served the public interest”.

Lord Leveson wrote that he has “given the leaders of the three main parties in the UK advance notice of these generic conclusions” including that they “have not served the public interest”. However he then notes in footnote 24:

“I did not write to the leaders of the national parties of government and opposition in the UK devolved administrations in this way because, as I make clear in this Report, in my opinion the conduct of politicians of devolved government cannot reasonably be considered as part of the historical UK national pattern with which my generic conclusions are concerned.”

Welcoming Lord Levenson’s findings, SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said:

“This is further vindication of the First Minister and the Scottish Government – Lord Leveson makes it crystal clear that he exempts the devolved administrations from the ‘historical UK’ pattern of the ‘too close’ relationship between politicians and press.

“Under the terms of the Leveson Report, it is the conduct of the three main parties at Westminster – Tory, Labour and Lib Dems – who have caused the problem.

“The hypocritical attacks of the opposition parties in Scotland have come completely unstuck. Lord Leveson is clear that Scotland and the Scottish Government have not been part of the problem, but we cannot be complacent. We have a duty in terms of our devolved responsibilities to devise arrangements which work for Scotland – and it is high time, at long last, for the opposition leaders in Holyrood to rise to the occasion.”