New press regulator would not stop phone hacking, says Index panel
Doughty Street Chambers and Index on Censorship hosted a debate on the state of press freedom in the UK after the Leveson inquiry
20 Feb 14

The panel from left to right: Gavin Millar QC, Tom Phillips, Padraig Reidy, Jonathan Heawood and Gill Phillips (Image: Georgia Hussey)

The panel from left to right: Gavin Millar QC, Tom Phillips, Padraig Reidy, Jonathan Heawood and Gill Phillips (Image: Georgia Hussey)

The panel from left to right: Gavin Millar QC, Tom Phillips, Padraig Reidy, Jonathan Heawood and Gill Phillips (Image: Georgia Hussey)

A new press regulator, with or without statutory underpinnings, would not stop another scandal like phone hacking from happening, an Index on Censorship  panel said yesterday. The panel, consisting of Gill Phillips (Legal Director, Guardian Media Group), Gavin Millar QC (Doughty Street Chambers), Jonathan Heawood (Director of the Impress Project), and Tom Phillips (Senior Writer, Buzzfeed UK), chaired by Padraig Reidy, spoke at a Doughty Street Chambers and Index on Censorship debate on press freedom in the UK after the Leveson inquiry.

“In terms of the institutions that failed over phone hacking, the Press Complaints Commission doesn’t even make it onto the podium,” said Tom Phillips.  “So the idea that any kind of regulation was ever intended to be the solution to this is missing a whole bigger picture.”

If you set up a system to stop something “human ingenuity and imagination” will find a way to get around it, said Gavin Millar QC. He added that the best regulation “has to come from the heart”, and was worried about the complicated rules surrounding regulation taking the responsibility away from those “who are putting the stuff out.”

Jonathan Heawood argued that we can make press abuses “less likely” though a “good, intelligent, intelligently applied regulator” and “sufficiently enforced, sufficiently clear sanctions”.  He added that regulation is “part of the solution” to improve conditions allowing public interest journalism to flourish.

Press regulation took centre stage at the event, but wider issues of press freedom were also discussed. Gavin Millar pointed out how the UK’s debate on press freedom and press regulation may be perceived in authoritarian countries, while Tom Phillips warned that ignoring the evolving social norms of the internet age bad is for press freedom. Gill Phillips argued that while the UK isn’t as bad on press freedom as some other countries, “where we’re going” and “the threat of criminalisation that effects every day journalism” is worrying.

The event took place ahead of the release of Index on Censorship’s policy paper Life after Leveson: British media freedom in 2014. The paper acknowledges that the recent change in libel law was good for this country’s press freedom, “the record of successive governments have been far from perfect” and “there are still several areas where this government can act to safeguard the free press and free speech more broadly in the coming year.”

It was a timely discussion, as yesterday the High Court dismissed David Miranda’s challenge to his detention at Heathrow under the Terrorism Act in August. It was also the day former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks took the stand in the ongoing hacking trial.

“The [Miranda] judgement has some wide ranging views downgrading  journalism in the 20th century that I find personally bizarre,” said Philips. Millar said the judgement shows how the “remaining tendency of government using the possibility of court proceedings against newspapers to stifle the publication of state secrets” has a “chilling effect” on press freedom.

The sold-out event encouraged audience interaction, which made for a lively and at times heated, debate. One comment from the floor argued the panel had missed the point — that the debate was about press abuses, and a regulator was the minimum step that had to be taken. Another audience member questioned the press calling for regulation of other industries, but not wanting to be regulated themselves. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argued that we need to separate those issues of press abuse that can be tackled through the law and those that must be tackled by self-restraint on  the part of the media. Observer columnist Peter Preston said the Royal Charter regulator would be part of a “conspiracy of chaps”.

The discussion also took place on Twitter, under the hashtag #LifeAfterLeveson

This article was published on 20 February 2014 at

By Milana Knezevic

Milana Knezevic is the Assistant Editor, Online and News of Index on Censorship