Brian Leveson dismisses press concerns about 'statutory regulation' and libel arbitration

Sir Brian Leveson today dismissed suggestions that the system of press regulation he proposed amounts to ‘statutory regulation’.

And he also rejected concerns that including a libel disputes arbitration service in the regulator will lead to an increase in costs for publishers.

But he declined to get drawn into the current “political” debate over press regulation and say whether he favoured Parliament’s press regulation plan or the one submitted by publishers.

Leveson published his 2,000 page report on the “culture, practice and ethics of the press” back in November last year and this was the first time be has spoken publicly about his conclusions.

Tomorrow the Government is expected to publish a revised Royal Charter on press regulation after rejecting a Royal Charter submitted by publishers.

Leveson told MPs on the culture committee: “What I recommended in my report was a mechanism not to check on the press but to check on the regulator – to ensure the regulator was independent and effective.

“It would have no responsibility for anything that the press printed. The only body regulating the press would have been the independent self regulator in the scheme I recommended."

On the suggestion that what he recommended amounts to statutory regulation of the press, Leveson said: “I’m frustrated that people talk about statutory regulation of the press. I do not believe what I have recommended even starts to be that.

“The recogniser has absolutely nothing to do with what the press prints. It merely deals with ensuring the independence and effectiveness of the regulator.”

One of the main reasons publishers have rejected the regulation scheme put forward in Parliament’s Royal Charter is because it includes a low-cost libel disputes arbitration service.

Leveson dismissed concerns that such a system would lead to increased claims and costs against publishers.

He said: “Frivolous, abusive or vexatious claims should be dealt with very quickly and effectively without people having to spend time on them. I don’t believe the arbitration mechanism that I proposed would generate the cost or expense that some expressed fear about to me.”

And he said that under the no win, no fee libel system members of the public could previously sue newspapers for libel at no cost to themselves.

“Prior to April this year it was possible to bring an action for libel with a CFA and After the Event Insurance which mean the cost to newspapers if they lost a case was phenomenally high. I don’t believe that generated an enormous number of libel actions against newspapers.”

Leveson refused to get drawn on what he thought about the competing Royal Charters on press regulation, beyond saying that Royal Charters were not something which came up at all in evidence to his inquiry.

Responding to a question along these lines, he said: “I am afraid that we may have hit a red line. I think it is important to understand the position that I adopted. I was asked to conduct this inquiry and produce recommendations. There is a big issue as to whether judges should conduct inquiries..

“No serving judge will ever comment of a previous judgment of a colleague or his own. It would be quite wrong for me to comment on a politically contentious issue."

Parliament's revised Royal Charter is expected to be published tomorrow and then approved by the Privy Council at the end of the month. It will set out the terms under which a rocognition body will licence a new independent press regulator.

Meanwhile publishers are in the process of setting up a new regulator called the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If that body fails to get recognition under the terms of Parliament's Royal Charter, it will leave members of the body at risk of exemplary damages in libel and privacy actions under a change in the law.


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