The chief executive of broadcast regulator Ofcom has called an industry proposal for press regulation “unimaginable”.
Ed Richards – who appeared at the Leveson Inquiry today with chairman Colette Bowe – said decision-making would be difficult to defend publicly if serving editors sat on a board charged with adjudicating complaints. On Monday, Lord Black, chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, outlined plans for a new press regulator involving serving editors.
He said: “I think that is quite the wrong thing to do and makes effective…decision-making extremely difficult and to be honest in our context would be unimaginable.”
“I will say in terms of code setting, in terms of sanctions, in terms of corrections or anything of that kind, and in terms of policy-making overall, you need to have a bright line separation between those who are regulating and making decisions and those who are regulated, and I think any breach of that in our experiences means that you will immediately undermine the perception – and indeed in all reality – the actuality of your independence.”
He told the inquiry Ofcom approached the matter in a different way from the printed press because of impartiality rules in broadcasting, which newspapers are not subjected to. Bowe said governance arrangements must be able to demonstrate visible independence.
Richards contradicted journalist Roy Greenslade, who this morning told the inquiry ex-editors involved in regulation would come with an agenda, saying former broadcasters were able to leave personal feelings aside. However, he agreed it would be undesirable for somebody with industry experience “seeking to fight a battle of the past” with a new regulator.
Lord Justice Leveson also heard from barrister Sir Charles Gray on a proposal for an arbitration system for small libel and privacy disputes. Gray said his company – Early Resolution – could form part of a new regulator and would allow publications and complainants to resolve issues in a fast and cheap way rather than resorting to legal actions.
Gray said complaints could be dealt with in a day, by an experienced lawyer, and any hearings would be held in private.
He added: “You will achieve in a day with a competent silk what might take several days for a jury certainly, or even a judge who is less versed in these matters.”
Gray – who told the inquiry a future regulator should be mandatory – said the arbitrator was no risk to press freedom as it would only cover problems arising after articles are published.
David Thomas, of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association, discussed how an independent ombudsman could fit into a future regulator to oversee decisions on complaints and standards. He told the inquiry the individual would be able to handle issues people are unable to take to court, or chose to divert from the legal system.
He said although the ombudsman would be independent from a regulator, a free flow of information on emerging industry issues would be important. Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, suggested that the public would automatically trust an ombudsman figure, if appointed.