A prominent media lawyer has put forward a proposal for press regulation at the Leveson Inquiry.
Hugh Tomlinson QC – who has acted for footballer Ryan Giggs and actress Sienna Miller – said today privacy rights would not be protected without a more effective regulatory body.
He added: “Without some more effective form of regulation, the practical position is that privacy rights are simply not protected, as one has seen in notorious cases over the past two or three years.”
The proposal, compiled after a series of round table discussions with lawyers, academics and journalists, calls for a ‘Media Standards Authority’ with a mediation arm to resolve small legal complaints against publications, before they reach the courts. Tomlinson said the body could also mediate disputes between newspapers and complainants in other cases.
He said: “Take a not atypical case, where a newspaper writes about a dead family member in a way which is extremely upsetting to the family, which is not actionable in law because the person who is being written about is dead, or there’s no cause of action.
“Even if there is a victim, if the victim chooses not to complain, the MSA should still consider it. Either it’s a breach of the code or it’s not. And people often don’t complain for all kinds of reasons.”
Tomlinson said it is important newspapers are able to demonstrate they are acting in the public interest.
He added: “It seems to me that once you get into the land of misleading implied claims, then that opens up a can of worms. It means that it can be really open season on anybody, because you can see by implication, by walking down the street with your wife, you are implying that you’re a faithful person, and therefore you’re life can be exposed by the newspapers if it’s not entirely in accordance with the expectations of the editor.”
The inquiry also heard from Lara Fielden from the Reuters Institute, who talked through her report on media regulation abroad, and said the UK could find ways to “weave independence” through a new regulator by learning from foreign systems.
She added: “There is an issue about convergence… what should our expectations be of content that’s out there? How is it that broadcasting is regulated by comprehensive statutory rules, whereas the press is subject to voluntary rules – online [has] barely any rules at all. Combined with influential bloggers, new media, a whole debate is going on there that simply doesn’t fit currently comfortably within the regulatory structures.”
Fielden advocated a system of kitemarking publications that fall under an approved regulator, to demonstrate commitment to the public.
She added: “[Citizens] may choose to access information and publications within the regulatory fold or they may choose to go outside. That’s their choice, but they need to know what’s there – and I would defy anybody currently to be able to go to a newsstand or go online and identify who is inside and outside the regulatory fold.
“Every time we invoke [Northern & Shell owner] Richard Desmond, we have a fear of who will sit outside, and it seems to me it’s already not just him who sits outside. There’s a whole multitude of online providers that will only grow in size that sit outside, and the public should be able to make informed choices about where they go.”