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Following the discovery of widespread “phone-hacking” by journalists at The News of the World and other British newspapers, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, established in July 2011 a multi-part inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. Lord Justice Leveson was appointed as Chairman of the Inquiry. The first part (or “module”), which concluded its public hearings on 9 February 2012, concentrated on the relationship between the press and the public. Much of the material quoted in this Library Note comes from the evidence presented to this module (the first of four), but the Note will be updated periodically to take account of evidence presented at later modules.

It is widely accepted that the present system of voluntary self-regulation, as administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is in need of reform. The PCC deals with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines and the conduct of journalists.

Editors are expected to co-operate swiftly with the Press Complaints Commission in the resolution of complaints. If a complaint cannot be resolved, then the PCC will adjudicate under its Code of Practice and can enforce a range of sanctions.

In February 2012 the PCC announced plans to reform itself. The proposal is that the new regulator should have two arms: one that deals with complaints and mediation and one that audits and, where necessary, enforces standards and compliance with the Editors’ Code.

The same month saw publication of the Lords Select Committee report, The Future of Investigative Journalism. The report suggested that receipts from fines for breaches of regulatory codes should be allocated to a special fund reserved for the financing of investigative journalism or training. It also recommended that the Government consider further the legality of any proposals to limit the receipt of zero-rated VAT only to those newspapers which are members of the PCC (or any successor body).

In March 2012, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions reported. The Committee, which had been covering some of the same ground as the Leveson Inquiry, called for an enhanced press regulator with jurisdiction over all major news publishers and the power to impose fines.

The Government is currently planning a reform of libel law; a Joint Committee reported on the draft Defamation Bill in October 2011 and the substantive Defamation Bill was given its Commons second reading on 12 June 2012. The associated consultation paper noted that “there has been mounting concern over the past few years that our defamation laws are not striking the right balance, but rather having a chilling effect on freedom of speech”. It also acknowledged worries that the threat of libel proceedings might be used to impede responsible investigative journalism.

In the plentiful evidence submitted to Leveson and in discussions elsewhere in the public arena, several key themes have emerged, among them:

• Should there be a statutory “backstop” for press regulation, and would such a backstop inhibit free speech?

• What rights should individuals have to receive prior notification of press stories hostile to them or to have their replies published?

• Should there be an arbitration system as an alternative to costly libel actions?

• Should Ofcom’s remit extend to the press?

• Should membership of a regulatory body be mandatory for newspapers?

• Should online news sources be brought into a regulatory system?

• What lessons can be learnt from the regulation of other professions, such as medicine and the law?

A companion Note, Press regulation: international comparisons, compares the regulatory systems in a variety of foreign countries.

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