Lord Justice Leveson has repeated his wish for his Inquiry into press ethics not to be a “footnote in history”.
“I can live with something short of perfect,” Leveson said while discussing press regulation with former culture secretary Lord Smith this afternoon. “But I would find it difficult to live with improving things for two years,” he added, noting that public money and effort would have been put into “not very much”.
“Two years for me would represent a real failure,” he said.
Smith and Leveson spent most of the afternoon debating how to improve press standards. Smith, who was culture secretary from 1997-2001, described the Advertising Standards Authority’s regulatory system, but stressed it would be difficult to translate it to the press.
“The most obvious one [sanction] would be a requirement for equal prominence,” Smith said. “A system of fines of some kind has been mooted many times,” he added, noting it would be “hard to put in place but should be considered as a way of toughening the ability” of the Press Complaints Commission’s successor to make a newspaper recognise any mistakes it had made.
He added that there had been “palpable” improvements in press standards — notably in techniques used by paparazzi — following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Smith said he received 1,200 letters of complaint deploring press intrusion.
However, Leveson suggested the changes were not enduring, referring to the “calamity of press behaviour” in the princess’s death followed by the use of private investigators revealed by Operation Motorman and the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed News International.
“How many more times can we do this?” he asked.
The judge said he did not accept that “there would be any curtailment on freedom of press to hold all those in office to account (…) or to indulge in investigative journalism is imperiled by a system that prevents type of behaviour I’ve heard so much about in last few months.”
Smith, meanwhile, warned strongly against state involvement in regulating the British press. “Decisions about applying public interest, plurality tests shouldn’t rest with a secretary of state,” he said.
“These decisions shouldn’t rest with a political figure, however honourable they may be.”
Smith said he recognised the scope for a “statutory backstop” to assist with enforcing decisions, but emphasised that the decisions themselves made by a body that is voluntarily put together by the press, rather than imposed upon them.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow.
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