ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the decision of the UK government to halt ongoing efforts at reform of press regulation, and to seek the repeal of previously agreed measures providing incentives for the press to join recognised self-regulatory mechanisms. The decision means there will be no second phase of the Leveson Inquiry, launched in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011. The removal of these incentives and failure to continue the inquiry process is a blow to the effectiveness of public accountability of the press, and will severely diminish the right of the public to a reliable and accountable print media.
On 1 March 2018, Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, officially announced that the government will not initiate the second phase of the Leveson inquiry into press standards. He also confirmed that the government would not commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which was key in the implementation of the reform. Section 40, the commencement of which had so far remained suspended at the will of the government, would have created the possibility of legal costs to be awarded against a media defendant who was not a member of a recognised regulator. It would have created a strong incentive for the press outlets to become members of new self-regulatory mechanisms created under the 2013 Royal Charter on the self-regulation of the press.
In the UK, the press has traditionally been fully self-regulated and the self-regulation has been seen as a main condition and characteristic of press freedom. All attempts by the government to introduce a new system of press regulation have therefore tended to be perceived as an attack on the very notion of free press. However, ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly pointed out international human rights standards do not prescribe a specific model of press regulation. The legal underpinning, provided under the new system, does not regulate the press but simply underpins self-regulation. Comparable schemes have proved to be compatible with a high level of protection of freedom of expression in other countries.
As Section 40 did not set any limitation on the costs, it has been argued that it could have been applied in ways that would have threatened the financial viability of a media defendant. As such, ARTICLE 19 had recommended a cautious interpretation of Section 40 or that specific limitations on costs be included. However, ARTICLE 19 has maintained that the new system of press regulation under the Royal Charter was compatible with international standards on freedom of expression.
Under international human rights standards, the public has a vital interest in an accountable and responsible press. Self-regulation of the press must, therefore, be meaningful. It must not only provide protection for members of the journalistic profession and media industries, but also hold them accountable to their profession and hold press outlets accountable to the public. ARTICLE 19 also considers that an effective protection of robust rules of professional ethics is the best approach to tackle issues of misinformation.
We believe that the decision of the government to interrupt a reform process half way through is a severe blow to the right of the public to a reliable and accountable press in the UK, and we urge the government to reverse this decision.