Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 38 – January 2013

The Leveson Inquiry

The report of Lord Leveson's Inquiry into the culture, standards and conduct of the press reported on 29 November 2012. It was set up by the Prime Minister at the height of revelations about the 'hacking' of mobile phones of members of the public by leading newspapers, notably some of those of News International. The immediate event which led to its establishment was the report of the hacking of the mobile phone answering service of a murdered schoolgirl while police were still searching for her, and before her death had been confirmed. The revulsion prompted by that revelation, however, soon broadened out into a wide ranging set of hearings, and report, on the nature of the printed media generally. Leveson's recommendations have commanded wide support, except for one key recommendation: that a new self regulatory body should be established to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission, but that this body should be backed by legislation which could be used to, in the last analysis, enforce its decisions.

If you followed the debate surrounding this recommendation you may well have been baffled by the minute distinctions at play in defining self regulation with or without statutory backing. But in fact this is now a long established source of argument in the regulation of institutions in the UK in general. Pages 111-23 of the second edition of Politics and Governance in the UK explain the background to this. (Pages 315-7 also examine the more specific background to media regulation in Britain.) Those pages show that the struggle to preserve the full autonomy of the self regulatory system in respect of newspapers is part of a long struggle by important interests to remain independent of legal controls. Bar a few changes in specialised terms the debate about Lord Leveson's proposals echoes almost exactly debates about regulatory reform in a host of other arenas: the regulation of the law itself; of leading professions like medicine, and leading institutions like universities; and important sectors of the economy, like the City of London. At the time of writing we do not know what will be the exact outcome of the debate about Lord Leveson's proposals, but experience of these sectors, and indeed of the recent history of the 'regulatory state' (see in particular p. 116 of the second edition of PGUK) suggests that even if those resisting Lord Levson's particular proposal win this battle, they will lose the war. The history of the regulation of important institutions and interests in the UK in recent decades has followed a clear trajectory. 'Self regulation' was the norm for most institutions up to about half a century ago. That reflected the fact that powerful institutions and interests – including the press – were well established before the rise of the interventionist state during the 20th century. The history of numerous powerful institutions and interests since then has followed a strikingly similar pattern: scandals; the inability of self regulatory bodies to control these scandals; public inquiries into the sources of scandal; and recommendations for statutory backing for self regulatory bodies. The newspaper industry, whatever the views of particular editors and proprietors, is inching slowly along the same path.

Leveson also follows another well trodden path which is proving invaluable for students of British politics: like most recent inquiries it has a hugely informative website which not only contains the report but also the evidence submitted and a record of the hearings. See
http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk