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Post-Leveson Update: Where are we, one year on?


These cheery words open the Royal Charter devised by the UK political parties as a means of responding to the Leveson recommendations concerning standards in the press, which received assent this week (30 October 2013) at a meeting of the Privy Council.

Regulars will recall that the Charter was the product of the 18th March 2013 deal between the politicians, which emerged from the wrangling which followed the publication of Lord Justice Leveson's proposals in November 2012.

To recap, the Royal Charter provides for the creation of a so-called ‘recognition body’ to approve and oversee a new press regulatory body. But the Charter does not itself create a press regulation body; it merely puts in place the framework, and sets out 'recognition criteria' for any new regulatory body. Key elements are independent appointments and funding of the body; formulation of a new and robust press standards code; the prospect of large fines for newspapers (1% of turnover, max. £1 million); the power to order publication of prominent corrections and apologies; and a free arbitration service for victims and a fast complaints system.

But if no regulatory body applies for approval, the process will be powerless. And as the President of the Privy Council, one Nicholas Clegg MP, said this week: "It's entirely voluntary. If the press don't want to enter into this new system they don't have to and some significant parts of the press have said they have no intention of doing so." (However, note that there is an attempt to create a downside for newspapers which do not sign up - there are provisions for costs and "exemplary damages" penalties for non-participating newspaper defendants in High Court libel actions).

There continues to be firm opposition to the politicians' scheme from significant players in the press; several major press groups have already declared that they will not participate. Indeed, they attempted to block the Privy Council's approval for the Charter by applying to the High Court on the morning of 30 October for an injunction (on the grounds that the procedure had been legally defective and unfair) - unsuccessfully.

Instead, the press is developing its own proposed regulatory body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation ("IPSO"). It will include similar powers derived from Leveson LJ's recommendations: fines, compulsory apologies, a new standards code, an arbitration system. The body has its own website already. It seems that the staff of the PCC will in due course transfer to IPSO, which could be up and running in the Spring/early Summer of 2014.

The intention, however, seems clearly to be that it would not seek approval from the Royal Charter 'recognition body'; IPSO seems highly unlikely to apply for the approval of the watchdog, as the central principle underlying the press's opposition to the Charter system is the avoidance of any danger of political control. Furthermore, the IPSO proposals do not fully meet the Charter criteria, chiefly in terms of independence from the industry and the compulsory provision of a libel arbitration service. 

IPSO itself has not received the unqualified support of all the print media. The Guardian, The Independent and the FT were reportedly unhappy at undue influence on the part of the main funders of IPSO (Associated Newspapers, News UK (Sun and Times), Telegraph Media Group and Trinity Mirror). And campaigners are concerned that it is not 'independent', but rather that IPSO merely "institutionalises" the influence of the newspaper groups responsible for the difficulties which led to the Leveson Inquiry. It is feared for instance that the powers given to newspapers to challenge rulings by IPSO mean it would be highly unlikely to ever impose fines of £1m.

In short, with conciliatory noises from the Culture Secretary in early November 2013, it remains to be seen whether the divisions will continue to remain as strong as they have been since Leveson LJ reported nearly a year ago, and whether there was any point in the rather quaint procedure followed by the Privy Council on 30 October 2013. It currently seems most likely that IPSO will come into being next year, sidelining the Royal Charter system.

STOP PRESS – Defamation Act update

It now seems likely that the Defamation Act 2013 will not come into force this year. Current thinking is that the likeliest time is now April 2014.