In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: Leveson – what might we expect?

THIS time next week, we could all be on our way to being shackled by draconian Press legislation. That’s the picture that’s been recently painted by the Daily Mail and The Sun.

Until yesterday, the only question for some was what day Lord Leveson would issue his report on Press standards.

It’s going to be Thursday, and it will be interesting to see the Press coverage during the build-up to the report’s publication. Some have already shown their hand.

The Daily Mail last week expended 11 pages on a ‘special investigation’ into a seeming plot to muzzle the popular Press.

Meanwhile, The Sun was only a little more restrained. Statutory regulation would mean Sun readers would be able to read only what undefined ‘officials’ allowed them to. Would Page 3 nipples ever be safe again?

Neither paper considered what led us to the present situation.

When many people realised some protection of privacy was necessary – look up the case of actor, Gorden Kaye in 1991, for example – Fleet Street fought it relentlessly and missed the chance to take part in drafting legislation, leaving judge-made decisions to fill the gap.

When the Human Rights Act was going through Parliament, the Press successfully campaigned for a clause stating that Article 10 – the right to free expression – would have precedence over Article 8 – the right to respect for personal and family life.

Judges, however, can be more sophisticated in their thinking. So Article 10 does not ‘trump’ Article 8: a balance is drawn between them. A story is not simply either in the public interest or not, but certain parts of the story may be in the public interest but not others.

So what is Lord Leveson likely to conclude?

After the decades-long failure of Press self-regulation, finally and fatally shown up by Richard Desmond’s decision to take his Express and Star papers out of the Press Complaints Commission orbit, Lord Leveson will argue for a system underpinned by statute.

That could mean a number of things. Statute can be used to support a system of self-regulation which provides sanctions for breaches and closes escape routes for Desmond and others. Think of the model of the General Medical Council.

It can be used to provide a wholly statutory system like broadcasting regulators, Ofcom. Fleet Street lost one of its main arguments against an Ofcom-style system when it failed to break the Jimmy Savile story. That accolade went to the Ofcom-regulated ITV.

Statute can be used to provide Parliamentary oversight. A regulator could be compelled to deliver its annual report to Parliament and to answer questions on its performance before a Parliamentary committee.

One thing I do predict: Lord Leveson will not be content to see his report sit on a Government shelf for years, or to have his recommendations watered down. He will want to make a mark.

He will not accept having his time wasted on an inquiry the Government tries to ignore, and he will let Government and public know this.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, will find his room for a response restricted. This time next year, his friend, Rebekah Brooks, and former adviser, Andy Coulson, may well be on trial on charges arising from their News of the World activities.

If Cameron has not yet acted on the Leveson Report when NotW secrets spill out in court, the public will ask why.

Francis Shennan is director of and lectures on media law and regulation at Strathclyde, Stirling and Westminster universities.