Thu, 29 Nov 2012
Nick Clegg's statement to the House of Commons in response to Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Leveson Inquiry.
Mr Speaker, I’m grateful for the opportunity to address the House. I know it’s unusual – but this is an unusual debate. The terms of reference for Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry were agreed on a cross-party basis. As the House has heard, we intend to proceed on a cross-party basis. And so I think it is right that Parliament is clear on the initial views of the Government across the Coalition.
First, let me say that I agree with a huge amount that has already been said by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, which bodes well for the cross-party talks taking place later this afternoon.
I would like to thank Lord Justice Leveson for his extremely thorough report. In my view there are two big, liberal principles at play in this debate: on the one hand, the belief that a raucous and vigorous press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy; on the other, the belief that the vulnerable, the innocent and the weak should be protected from powerful vested interests.
A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or free to abuse grieving families. What I want now is for us to strike a better balance between these two liberal principles so that our media can scrutinise the powers that be, but cannot destroy innocent lives. So that the journalists up in the press gallery can hold us – the politicians – to account, but we can look up to the individuals and families in the public gallery knowing they have the right protections in place.
I have always said that I would support Lord Justice Leveson’s reforms, providing they are proportionate and workable. I will come onto why – at first glance – I believe that to be the case for the report’s core proposal: for a tougher system of self-regulation, supported by new, independent checks, recognised in law.
But I don’t want to disguise the fact that I do have some specific concerns about some specific recommendations. For example on data protection rules, and any changes to the way in which journalists can use personal information when reporting in the public interest. And on the suggestion that it should be Ofcom who independently verifies the new press watchdog. Ofcom has a key role in regulating the content of broadcast media and I’m yet to be convinced that it is best placed to take on this new, light touch function with the print media too. Lord Justice Leveson has said this function could be fulfilled by a new body.
However, on the basic model of a new self-regulatory body, established with a change to the law in principle, I believe this can be done in a proportionate and workable way.
I understand the entirely legitimate reasons why some members of this House are wary of using legislation. I have thought long and hard about this. I’m a liberal, I don’t make laws for the sake of it - and certainly not when it comes to the press. Indeed, when I gave my own evidence to the Inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all of the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should.
But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that. Lord Justice Leveson has considered these issues at length. He has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation which seeks to cover all of the press. And he explains why the system of sticks and carrots he proposes has to be recognised in statute in order to be properly implemented by the courts.
What is more, changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn’t just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good. Someone will need to check, periodically, that the independence of the regulator hasn’t been weakened over time. The report explains why that needs to be set out in law.
And, as Lord Justice Leveson himself says: ‘this is not and cannot be characterised as statutory regulation of the press’. This is a voluntary system, based on incentives, with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation.
It’s worth dwelling on that point for a moment. Because while there has – rightly – been a lot of discussion about the risks of legislating, there have so far been some key arguments missing from this debate.
First, the press does not operate in some kind of lawless vacuum. It has to abide by the law. In many instances it is already protected by the law and I agree with the report that we should actually go further in enshrining the freedom of the press in statute.
Second, it’s been suggested that using law will blur the line between politicians and the media. But we mustn’t ignore the extent to which that line has already been blurred under the current system of self-regulation. It’s the status quo which has allowed such cosy relationships between political and media elites to arise in the first place. And let’s not forget, of the five PCC Chairs, three were serving parliamentarians who took a party whip. Far from allowing greater overlap, the laws that have been proposed give us a chance to create a hard wall between politics and the press.
Third, as the report notes, there is already an example of statutory underpinning in the Irish Press Council, which has been accepted by a number of UK newspapers. The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, the Sunday Times, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members - they all publish Irish editions. I haven’t yet heard these papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish Sea.
Of course, neither I nor anyone can be certain of exactly how these proposals will look until we have worked up the detail. The two tests I have set – that any reforms must be workable and proportionate – will need to be met in practice as much as principle. And, if they are not, I will be the first to sound the alarm. In that event, we would need to consider alternatives. The absolute worst outcome in all of this would be for nothing to happen at all.
But we mustn’t now prevaricate. I – like many people – am impatient for reform. And, bluntly, nothing I have seen so far in this debate suggests to me we will find a better solution than the one which has been proposed. Nor do I draw any hope from the repeated failure of pure self-regulation that we’ve seen over the last 60 years.
We need to get on with this without delay. We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing. Too long for an independent press watchdog in which they can put their trust. I am determined we do not make them wait any more.
I commend this statement to the House.