For the second in a series of interviews on "reactions to Leveson,” we spoke with Guy Black, Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, about his initial reactions to the recommendations for the UK news industry contained in Lord Justice Leveson's 2000-page report. Chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, and a former director of the Press Complaints Commission, Black proposed a new system of regulation to the Leveson Inquiry in conjunction with fellow Conservative member of the House of Lords, David Hunt. Crucially, it aimed to avoid statutory legislation by relying on civil law through the drawing up of binding contracts that news organisations would sign on becoming members of the new regulator. His plan was largely welcomed by the industry, and he has been described by the Guardian as “the man who turned the Tories against Leveson’s plan.”
Days after Leveson released his report, editors of UK papers are working on plans for a new regulatory system. They are expected to show progress by tomorrow, having been told by Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday that their plans must fulfill all of Leveson’s requirements, except for regulation to be statutory, to avoid the drafting of a new press law.
Editors Weblog: Do you agree with Lord Justice Leveson that 'this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press'?
Lord Black: No, I think that the moment that you try to start drafting any kind of law that relates to recognition of a body it is inevitably going to encroach on the whole area of content. There are a number of things in the report in the small print that make clear that the law will need to set down the requirements for a statutory body and that will include the provision of a code, and that means statutory regulation of content. It’s also very difficult to see how, when you’ve got a state body whose chairman and chief executive are both appointed by the government, that their having a role in accrediting a regulatory body could be anything other than ultimate control by government. Although there is a huge amount in the report that I agree on, I can’t agree with a conclusion that that isn’t statutory control.
Putting the issue of whether or not this regulation should be statutory, do you agree in principle with the sort of body that Leveson proposes to establish? He did say he tried to use your proposal as a model where possible.
The structure that he was scrutinizing was one that was provided to him, at his request, by the industry: he has always been very clear and reiterated in his report that he wants the industry to provide the solutions to this issue. And there’s a great deal of territory where we agree, there’s a lot in the report where he’s backing the models put forward to him: the contractual structure, the ability of the new regulator to have investigative powers, the ability to fine and so forth. These are all areas where there is a broad degree of agreement. There are some areas where he wants more work done – independence of appointments procedures and funding in particular – and it’s our job now to engage on that and make sure that we can enter into sensible and meaningful discussions with a view to ensuring that we adopt as much of the report as possible.
Do you think Leveson is right to insist that "the new body must represent the interests of the public as well as the press"?
The public is absolutely crucial to all this. And there’s a lot that the public will get out of the new regulatory structure. It will maintain a vast and effective complaints handling service, and the interests of the public will be protected by the presence of independent majorities of people throughout this system. The new initiatives on increasing internal governance within newspapers, as well as the introduction of a new standards arm, will demonstrably raise standards of reporting, and again that’s going to be in the interests of the public.
Additionally, there is going to be no burden on the public purse – taxpayers will not have to fund this body and complainants will get a service free of charge. It’s crucial that the public is central to this and I think that members of the public are certainly going to be fully protected.
How do you respond to the Media Standards Trust's recent poll that found that 79 percent of the public voted for “an independent regulator established by law”?
Of course in many ways that’s exactly what we are proposing – an independent regulator which is based in law. We are proposing that there will be civil law contracts that underpin this system, which will give the regulator the new powers so it will be fully backed and established by law, but not by statute law. And I think there is a certain degree of evidence – there have been two other polls in recent days – that have shown that the public is not keen on some form of statutory regulation of press content. So I think that any particular opinion poll can be misleading, but I think that the key point here is that this will be an independent regulator, and it will be backed by law, but it won’t be backed by statute law.
Leveson takes your suggestion that "a named senior individual within each title should have responsibility for compliance and standards" as one of his recommendations. Would this be someone like an ombudsman or readers editor?
I think it will be for each publication and each publisher to figure out how that is going to work, because a lot of newspapers – we are not just talking about national newspapers but about regional newspapers of course, and magazines – are structured very differently. The essence of the proposal is that there should be somebody responsible to the regulator for compliance and standards, somebody is senior within the organisation and who has the clout to be able to make sure that they can make procedures effective and so forth, but I think it would be wrong to lay down quite who that person should be. In some companies it might be an editorial figure, in others it might be an ombudsman figure, but that will be for publishers to decide.
If you could change one aspect of the proposal to make it more acceptable, what would it be?
Well obviously I don’t agree with the imposition of statute and the recommendation that this body should be accredited by Ofcom – I think that’s a mistake and I think that there is increasing opposition to that. In basically all the other areas that he has raised, I think we can make further progress. I think that’s a matter for the industry to discuss and take forward fairly rapidly.
Do you think that Cameron's immediate response was appropriate?
I think he has been very clear that the industry now needs to make progress. He has passed the responsibility to us, he has thrown down a challenge and I think that’s absolutely the right thing for him to do. He has also made it clear that if the industry fails then there will be serious consequences for that. But both he and Lord Justice Leveson have been very clear that they want the industry to come forward, do the thinking and put the new regulator into action. I think we are a very long way towards that. There’s more detailed work to be done and more areas where we’ve got to discuss things and make further progress, but there’s a very solid foundation there on which to build.
What is your plan going forward?
Well I think that the industry needs to do a number of things. First of all, study the report in detail and work out the areas where we do agree and those where we have got to make further progress. Crucial to this is the process of the drawing up of contracts because it’s going to be the contracts which give the regulator the new base. A framework was put to the Leveson Inquiry and I think the immediate focus of what the industry must now do is to begin turning that into contracts to signing. This will take a number of weeks but I think that the sooner we crack on the better.