Whittingdale: 'Part two of the inquiry, I hear, may not ever be occurring'
Tory MP backs PCC2 model
Mick Hume: 'The British press is not free enough as it is'
The Conservative MP who chaired the Parliamentary inquiry into hacking at the News of the World has said that part two of the Leveson Inquiry may never take place.
The inquiry was originally broken into two parts: the first examining the culture, practices and ethics of the British press and the second looking at specific claims about phone-hacking at the NoW and what went wrong with the original police investigation.
The latter part was deferred due to the ongoing criminal investigations. The first trials of various individuals, including Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, will not take place until September 2013.
Speaking at the launch of the Free Speech Network, a coalition of publishers and other organisations opposed to statutory regulation, Tory MP John Whittingdale questioned whether part two will ever take place.
Whittingdale, who chaired the House of Commons Culture committee investigating wrongdoing at the NoW, said: “My real regret – one of the key things I wanted Lord Justice Leveson to look into – was how it was that the News of the World newsroom appeared to allow this to go on… but also how the police sat around for four years and did nothing.
“Those are two things which Lord Justice Leveson may never examine. Part two of the inquiry, I hear, may not ever be occurring.
“Therefore, it seems very strange that actually the most important questions surrounding the hacking scandal may never be properly looked into.”
Addressing guests at last Thursday’s event, Whittingdale also warned against statutory regulation of the press and gave his backing to the so-called PCC2 model of stricter self-regulation.The Maldon MP said he would only support statutory underpinning if there was no alternative, arguing the press deserved a second chance to try and regulate itself properly.
He supported the recommendations made by the Culture committee two months ago – namely that “we should give a chance to the much stronger independent regulatory body which is being established under the chairmanship of Lord Hunt”.
He added: “It does have the teeth which were obviously lacking in the old PCC. We should pull back from statutory intervention unless it [becomes] clear that there is absolutely no alternative. I don’t think we have reached that point. I think we deserve to give Lord Hunt a chance.
“And the committee, which was cross-party, both houses, recommended that if it became clear that the new body was insufficient then we would have to consider statutory underpinning.
“But that is such a serious step to take. I don’t think we should rush into it.”
Thursday’s launch event was seen as a last-ditch attempt by the major publishers to fight any form of statutory regulation.
The network is being organised by the Society of Editors, the Newspaper Society/Newspaper Publishers Association and the PPA, and all the major national newspaper publishers have signed up to its mission statement.
Alongside Whittingdale on the panel was the BBC’s John Humphrys, who was chairing the event, and the journalist and free press campaigner Mick Hume.
Hume, who recently published his polemical book There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press, feared it was now “too broadly accepted” that the “British press has been too free to run wild and needs to be, in some form, tamed”.
“My argument is that actually the British press is not free enough as it is,” he said. “Even before we have a new regulator – whether state run or not – to wash the naughty newspapers’ mouths out with soap… I think we’re already in a situation where the press is not free enough, and that argument needs to be entered into the question.”
A prominent campaign figure has been University of Kent professor Tim Luckhurst, who published the pamphlet Power without Responsibility with backing from Daily Mail publishers A&N Media.
He came in for some stinging criticism from audience member Steven Barnett, media professor at the University of Westminster.
“What was missing,” said Barnett, “was any notion of accountability. There was almost, I’m afraid, a sense of complacency about the kinds of egregious things that happened to people, not just over the last years before phone-hacking broke but in the five, ten, 15 years before that.
“It wasn’t illegal to say to Charlotte Church’s mother: ‘You give us an exclusive on your attempted suicide or we will publish another front-page story about your husband’s affair’.
“It is the worst kind of intimidation by corporate power. And one of the questions that I think a lot of us are asking here is where is the accountability? Not for free speech, but for the corporate version of free speech.”
Barnett defended the notion of statutory regulation by citing the example of Finland, which he said passed statutory legislation in 2003.
“Finland in eight out of the last ten years has come top of the press freedom tables,” he said.
“Now, Finland is not sliding into any kind of autocratic dictatorship, nor are the other countries which have an equivalent, accountable, underpinning statute.
Why are we so terrified of what might happen in this country?”
Luckhurst hit back: “I think the distinction between any state involvement in the regulation of the press and regulation by the industry… is so clear and absolute, and so well understood throughout the world.”
He said that proposals for an independent statutory-backed regulator were “excellent” but represented a “crossing of the Rubicon” and would not be genuinely independent because of the involvement of the state.