After a dramatic afternoon that started with heated exchanges between Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ended with News Corp announcing that is was abandoning its bid to buy BskyB, we now have a public inquiry into the phone tapping scandal to look forward to.
Here’s how the Prime Minister announced the details to MPs:
“Starting as soon as possible, Lord Justice Leveson, assisted by a panel of senior independent figures, with relevant expertise in media, broadcasting, regulation and government, will inquire into:
The culture, practices and ethics of the press.
Their relationship with the police.
The failure of the current system of regulation.
The contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians. Why previous warnings about press misconduct were not heeded. And the issue of cross-media ownership.
He will make recommendations for a new, more effective way of regulating the press. One that supports their freedom, plurality and independence from government but which also demands the highest ethical and professional standards.
He will also make recommendations about the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press. This part of the Inquiry we hope will report within twelve months.”
We also know from Cameron’s answers to questions in the Commons that the inquiry will have wide powers to call witnesses, including newspaper editors and proprietors.
Witnesses will give evidence under oath – and in public too. So the likes of the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will be questioned by a senior judge and other experts with the full glare of the media spotlight upon them. There’s a form of poetic justice in that.
Lord Justice Leveson is a senior judge and widely respected. As a prosecutor he led the case against Rose West. He has previously held the position of senior presiding judge for England and Wales and currently chairs the Sentencing Council, which draws up guidelines for the courts. His appointment has been universally welcomed.
Leveson may not be well known to the public – but he will become so over the next year. And I will be interested to see who the other members of the panel will be.
In a statement, Lord Justice Leveson said his, “inquiry must balance the desire for a robustly free press with the rights of the individual while, at the same time, ensuring that critical relationships between the press, Parliament, the government and the police are maintained”.
While much of the focus will be on what the inquiry can tell us about past events, its recommendations for the future of the media should also receive close attention.
The balance between the freedom of the press and ensuring that journalists and newspapers stick within the law is a crucial one. Investigative journalism must be protected, but there have to be limits to the methods that are employed.
And a proper system of press regulation is a must. The self regulation that we currently have clearly isn’t working. The Express newspapers simply opted out of the system, meaning that complaints could not be made against them!
A replacement is required, and it must be one that is independent of the political process. Having politicians in charge would make as little sense as allowing newspapers to police themselves.
Lord Justice Leveson and his colleagues will have a long and difficult job ahead of them. But if they can sort through all of the evidence and all of the testimony that the inquiry will generate and make a series of sensible and robust recommendations they will deserve the thanks of all of us.