(Press Gazette) The Government has formally closed the Leveson Inquiry and will not commence Section 40 cost provision laws that would have forced newspapers to pay both sides’ legal costs, win or lose in court.
Culture Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons today that the “terms of reference” for Leveson Two had “largely been met”.
He pointed to “extensive reforms to policing practices” and “significant changes to press self-regulation” with the establishment of the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Hancock quoted a 2016 report by Sir Joseph Pilling that concluded IPSO had “largely complied with Leveson’s recommendations” and noted it recently launched a low-cost arbitration scheme, bringing it further in line.
He also referred to the recognition of alternative press regulator Impress under the Royal Charter and that newspapers had made improvements to their “internal controls, standards and compliance”.
Said Hancock: “So it is clear that we have seen significant progress, from publications, from the police and also from the newly formed regulator.”
He said the media landscape of today was “markedly different” from the one examined by Leveson in 2011 and that the press was now “under threat” from new forces that require “urgent attention”.
He said: “The way we consume news has changed dramatically. Newspaper circulation has fallen by around 30 per cent since the conclusion of the Leveson Inquiry.
“And although digital circulation is rising, publishers are finding it much harder to generate revenue online.”
He said that in 2015, for every £100 newspapers lost in print revenue newspapers gained only £3 in digital revenue.
Hancock said local papers in particular were under “severe pressure”.
More than 200 local titles have closed since 2005, according to Press Gazette research.
“As we devolve power further to local communities, they will become even more important,” the Tory MP said.
“There are also new challenges that were only in their infancy back in 2011.
“We have seen the dramatic and continued rise of social media, which is largely unregulated, and issues like clickbait, fake news, malicious disinformation and online abuse, which threaten high quality journalism.
“A foundation of any successful democracy is a sound basis for political discourse. This is under threat from these new forces that require urgent attention.
“These are today’s challenges and this is where we need to focus.”
Hancock said the Government-led public inquiry into press regulation found two-thirds of direct respondents were against reopening the Leveson Inquiry versus 12 per cent who were in favour.
He said Leveson, who has been consulted about the decision, “agrees that the inquiry should not process on the current terms of reference” but that it should continue “in an amended form”.
But, he added: “We do not believe that reopening this costly and time-consuming public inquiry is the right way forward.
“Considering all of the factors that I have outlined to the House today, I have informed Sir Brian that we will be formally closing the inquiry.”
On Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would force newspapers not signed up to a Royal Charter regulator to pay both sides’ legal fees in privacy and libel battles, win or lose, Hancock said commencing it would “exacerbate the problems the press face rather than solve them”.
He said 7 per cent of direct respondents to the public inquiry on press regulation favoured full commencement, versus 79 per cent who favoured full repeal.
The inquiry received some 174,000 respondents.
“We have decided not to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to seek repeal at the earliest opportunity,” he said.
“We have carefully considered all of the evidence we received. We have consulted widely, with regulators, publications and victims of press intrusion.
“The world has changed since the Leveson Inquiry was established in 2011. Since then we have seen seismic changes to the media landscape.
“The work of the Leveson Inquiry, and the reforms since, have had a huge impact on public life.
“We thank Sir Brian Leveson for lending his dedication and expertise to the undertaking of this Inquiry.
“At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy.
“Britain needs high-quality journalism to thrive in the new digital world. We seek a press – a media – that is robust, and independently regulated. That reports without fear or favour.
“The steps I have set out today will help give Britain a vibrant, independent and free press that holds the powerful to account and rises to the challenges of our times.”
In his response, Labour deputy leader and Shadow Culture Secretary Tom Watson took the opportunity to address claims in the Daily Mail that former motor racing boss Max Mosley had published a “racist” pamphlet.
Watson has received donations worth £540,000 from Mosley, who supports reforms to the media backed by Labour. The party has since said it will no longer accept donations from Mosley.
Mosley told Press Gazette in a statement yesterday that he did not recognise the leaflet, adding: “It is not something I would have ever wished to be associated with. It is offensive and divisive.”
Watson told Parliament today: “If I thought for one moment he held those views contained in that leaflet 57 years ago I would not have given him the time of day.
“He is a man who in face of great family tragedy and overwhelming media intrusion chose to use his limited family resources to support the weak against the strong.”
On the closure of the Leveson Inquiry and call to repeal Section 40 laws, Watson said: “This announcement conveniently timed to be buried under a flurry of snow is a disappointment, a breach of trust and a bitter blow to the victims of press intrusion, but it is not in any way a surprise.
“We now know for certain what we have suspected all the time: When Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron joined the leaders of other parties to say that he would keep his promise to the victims of phone hacking, he and his party were not acting out of conviction but weakness.”
He said Conservatives who supported press victims “didn’t really mean it”. “They were waiting for the wind to change, waiting for the fuss to die down, waiting for a time when they could – as quietly as possible – break their promise and today that time has finally come.”
Watson said questions remained over the extent of illegality at News International (now News UK) and whether police suppressed proper investigation into complaints.
“None of these questions will be answered… and the Secretary of State is trying to ensure they never will be,” he said.
Hancock said Labour’s proposals to push ahead with Leveson Two and implement Section 40 cost provisions would “lead to a press that is fettered and not free”.
He said: “We do not love every story that’s written about us in the press, but the idea that the solution had been in shackling our free press with punitive costs over any complaint is completely wrong.”
Read more on the issue:
- Our last update for CIVICUS Monitor: government plans to assess media sustainability welcomed by some, criticised by others
- RSF welcomes UK plan to repeal Section 40
- Index welcomes announcement on Section 40
- Culture Minister signals UK Government’s intention to repeal Section 40
Featured image: Reuters/Dan Kitwood