The Star, the Lord and your rights

Recommendations: Lord Justice Leveson launches his report to an expectant audience.
Recommendations: Lord Justice Leveson launches his report to an expectant audience.
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FIRST the good news.

The Leveson report into press ethics will make no difference whatsoever to The Star.

We will keep telling you what’s going on in your city, South Yorkshire and beyond the way we have for the last 125 years.

The Star and other regional newspapers emerged from the most forensically detailed look at the press this country has ever seen with glowing recommendations from Lord Justice Leveson.

“I must make a special point about Britain’s regional newspapers,” he said in his 200-page report.

“In one sense, they are less affected but their contribution to local life is truly without parallel. Their demise would be a huge setback for communities (where they report on local politics, occurrences in the local courts, local events, local sports and the like) and would be a real loss for our democracy.

“Although accuracy and similar complaints are made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised.”

In his much-anticipated and ground-breaking report Leveson sets out proposals for an independent press watchdog underpinned by a statutory regulator.

The judge said he was confident his recommendations provide a model for self-regulation which would protect the freedom of the press and freedom of speech along with the rights and interests of individuals.

But there are controversies and potential pitfalls.

Any control of the press - and Lord Leveson’s independent body would be backed and enforced by government appointed body Ofcom - could in future be manipulated by politicians for their own ends.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “We can’t go down that slippery slope back to 18th century press licensing. Most politicians, once you give them a little nose into something, will try to find a very much wider thing down the line.

“We might have benign politicians now, but in 10 years’ time? That’s the problem.”

Mark Hanna, former investigative reporter at The Star and now media law expert and senior journalism lecturer at Sheffield University sees a subtle and clever balancing act by Leveson in his report.

“What Lord Justice Leveson has done is to adopt a ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach,” he said. “The carrot is that if the press sign up and fund the type of self-regulatory body he proposes, it can use an arbitration service to avoid high costs when people launch libel and privacy actions against it.

“Those who don’t will not get those legal benefits and may be forced to pay a higher level of damages to people who win libel and privacy cases in the courts. Lord Justice Leveson’s plan is likely to enjoy widespread political support, even if all elements of the press don’t like it.

“But what he wants is a form of state regulation, and some would say, a threat to the independence of the press. Leveson has also approved the press’ own plan for the new body to be able to fine a newspaper or magazine up to £1 million for the worst breaches of ethics. The climate has changed for the press, without doubt,”

So how will this affect The Star’s ability to bring you the news?

It won’t - at least not yet.

But, if implemented, the recommendations will be the first restrictions on press freedom for 300 years.

In the current political climate that is not likely to lead to serious restrictions on a free press but it’s the thin end of a wedge that could get considerably thicker under a more draconian future government.

The press, though it does not always appear so, is a champion of the people, a check on the power of Government, a vital restraint on those who wield power.

There are those who, quite rightly in some cases, say that the press has abused its power and freedoms to the extent that regulation is necessary and there will always be grey areas in the way a free press works.

The scandal over MPs’ expenses began with a stolen document and that kind of necessary subterfuge in the public interest should and must continue - regulatory body or not.

This week The Star obtained a copy of a letter sent between Government ministers revealing secret aspects of plans for a high speed station in Sheffield and named Meadowhall as the place likely to get a new station.

That story was published because it was in the public interest and although our day-to-day news agenda is more reflective of events in the community in which we all live, The Star will continue to exercise its freedom to bring important information to light.

We report on everything from corrupt MPs, to individuals battling adversity, dishonest policemen to the 92-year-old marrying her 80-year-old toyboy.

That is the right that cannot be put at risk by phone-hackers, paparazzi or over- zealous politicians.

The Leveson report is in many ways a strengthening of the right to publish and an endorsement of the way most journalists work.

The excesses of the few cannot be allowed to damn the rest of us.