Brooks to PM: "We're in this together"

David Cameron has said statutory regulation must be a “last resort” in reforming the British press.

Spending the day giving evidence before the Leveson Inquiry today, the prime minister — who himself called for the Inquiry into press standards — said he was not ruling out statutory involvement in a new regulator, but said there was a need to “make everything that can be independent work before you reach for that lever”.

He said independent regulation of the press must involve all newspapers, be compulsory, be able to impose penalties and have investigatory powers.

A reformed Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had to be seen to be simple, understandable and offer redress for ordinary individuals, he said.

The key, Cameron said, was if an individual suffered press intrusion or was the subject of an inaccurate article, “that it really is worth their while going to this regulator, however established, and they know they’re going to get a front-page apology.

“Are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by the press?” he asked, citing repeatedly the “catacylsmic” revelations of last summer that abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, which led to the closure of tabloid the News of the World and Cameron’s call for a public inquiry into press malfeasance.

“If families like the Dowlers feel this has really changed the way they would have been treated, we would have done our job properly,” Cameron said.

While he maintained he understood the “real concern” over statutory regulation of a free press, he repeated that he felt the country’s current system of press self-regulation had “failed”.

Lord Justice Leveson’s report, which will offer recommendations on future press regulation, is due to be published this autumn.

Cameron emerged from his day in the witness box relatively unscathed, save the revelation of a text message from former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks during the Conservative party conference in October 2009, in which she told the then leader of the opposition that “professionally, we’re definitely in this together” and signed off “yes he Cam!”

Cameron also spoke cautiously about his appointment of former News of the Wold editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief in 2007, noting that it was “controversial” due to Coulson’s resignation from the tabloid following the jailing of one of its reporters on phone hacking offences.

Yet Cameron stressed he and current chancellor George Osborne felt Coulson was a “very effective” candidate.

“The calculation was, who is going to be good enough, tough enough to deal with a very difficult job,” Cameron said.

He described the issue of Coulson’s lower-level vetting by Number 10 as a “red herring”, and defended handing responsibility of the £8bn bid for control of BSkyB to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, telling the Inquiry that it had been endorsed by Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell and backed with legal advice.

Looking to the future, Cameron recommended greater distance and respect between members of the press and politicians, noting that the relationship was not “a particularly trusting one at the moment”.

“When I got into Downing Street I did try to create a bit more distance. I think I need to go back and do that again,” Cameron said.

The Inquiry continues next week.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

"If the tone of newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we'd have 30,000 fewer prisoners" – Ken Clarke tells Leveson

Twenty-first century politicians have been “obsessed” with newspapers, the Leveson Inquiry heard this afternoon.

“Politics is now a mass media-dominated activity”, justice secretary Ken Clarke said, arguing that the press was now far more powerful than parliament and that many were put off by politics due to the level of exposure.

Clarke singled out former prime minister Gordon Brown as having been “utterly obsessed” by his relations with the media, adding that it “didn’t do him any good at all”. He said Margaret Thatcher “never read a newspaper from one week to the next” and implored his colleagues to pay no attention to the papers if they were upset by their content.

During his calm and measured session at the Inquiry, Clarke said newspaper editors and proprietors “can drive a weak government like a flock of sheep before them” when lobbying on certain topics, and he slammed the idea of currying favour with the press as a “waste of time”.

The politics of the last 15 years had been “dominated” by competition for support from the Sun newspaper, he added. “I don’t think the Sun ever had a significant effect on any election in my lifetime, though it was obviously thought by some to be important.”

He said he held the “more jaundiced view” that the paper and its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, were “good at changing sides when it’s obvious the horse they’re riding is about to collapse”.

He described New Labour as having introduced a level of “control-freakery”, adding that he knew of one journalist who was barred from the Treasury and told she would not be let in again because of stories she had written.

On the topic of criminal justice legislation, Clarke pointed the finger at the popular press, emphasising that newspaper campaigns were often based on partial accounts of high-profile cases. “If the tone of newspapers had been different in the last 20 years, we’d have 30,000 fewer prisoners,”  he said, though he stressed this was not a “scientific” estimation.

He and Lord Justice Leveson discussed at length the future of press regulation, with Clarke admitting he was “deeply suspicious” of government control in a new system. Yet he added he did not have confidence in letting the press regulate itself, stressing that a regulator should be independent of both the industry and the government.

“I always thought PCC was a joke,” Clarke quipped. “I had some friends on it who tried to convince me otherwise. Completely useless.”

“I do think 99 per cent of people in this country genuinely believe in a free press,” he added, suggesting journalists were becoming “almost as sensitive as politicians” who thought no-one loved them anymore.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Inquiry should not be a "footnote in history" says Leveson

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.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Leveson will subject press regulation proposal to "forensic analysis"

Lord Justice Leveson has said he is not giving his “endorsement, let alone agreement” to a proposed reformed setup of the Press Complaints Commission, adding that and that a new package will be “subjected to forensic analysis”.

“My mind remains open to all options,” Leveson said in his opening remarks at this morning’s Inquiry session, responding to last week’s disbanding of the current PCC, and its chair Lord Hunt’s subsequent draft proposal for a new body “with teeth”.

“To say that the PCC was never a regulator (…) only underlines the concern that the public have been misled about what it could do,” Leveson said, raising a number of questions for the as yet unnamed new body. He took issue with the five-year rolling contract endorsed by Lord Hunt, questioning if it was “sufficient to deal with the fundamental problem of industry acceptance.”

“The threat of what I might recommend may well encourage to sign up those who (…) do not consider that the PCC worked for them, but that simply potentially puts the problem off for five years,” Leveson said. He added that “previous crises have concerned adequacy of regulation and there was no problem of publishers leaving the system.”

He also questioned the structure of the new body, which, as Lord Hunt outlined, would have two arms: one that deals with complaints and mediation, and another that audits and enforces standards and compliance with the editors’ code. “What is the view about concurrent legal proceedings and why should the complaints arm not be able to award compensation,” Leveson asked.  “Is the new independent assessor an appeal mechanism and, if so, what will be done to prevent complaint fatigue and what has been said to be the grinding down of complainants by passage of time? What is meant by a serious or systemic breakdown in standards?”

The judge stressed his role would be to recommend what he perceived to be the “most effective and potentially enduring” system. “It will then be for others to decide how to proceed,” he said.

Leveson also responded to today’s call from the Hacked Off Campaign for the Operation Motorman database to be published. He said core participants’ barrister, David Sherbone was “at liberty” to formally submit the reuqest if he felt it were appropriate or may highlight a broader culture of press practices rather than “who did what to whom.”

Also today the Inquiry heard from Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, and Sir Dennis O’Connor of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Dick outlined her approach to relations with the media as not “obsessively monastic”, noting that she preferred to speak with journalists through the Met’s press office if a reporter was seeking information. She told the Inquiry she held monthly briefings with two to three journalists, which she said were “important to break down barriers”. Yet the meetings did not produce “a single scoop or really good story.”

“Certainly I wasn’t saying anything secret or exciting,” Dick said.

Questioned over the decision taken by then Assistant Commissioner John Yates not to re-open rhe phone hacking investigation in 2009 in light of reports by the Guardian was “not only poor, it was disastrous.”

Dick clarified that Sue Akers, the Met officer leading  the current Operation Weeting investigation into hacking, was now working more widely under section one of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in terms of potential lines of inquiry than during the original 2006 investigation.

“Public opinion in terms of these issues is in a very different place than [in] 2006 when we were completely dominated by the terrorist threat,” Dick added, reiterating the testimony of other Met staff.

O’Connor spoke in favour of a “common frame of reference” for police forces in dealing with the media, but on more than one occasion warned against constraining relations between them.

“The last thing I would do is restrain the relation between the police and the press,” he said. “That would defy reality.”

He said he hoped the Inquiry could help reinforce the legitimacy of the police.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with the Met’s senior information officer, Sara Cheesley, and communications director, Dick Fedorcio.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson