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Leveson: We Need to Consider a Statute-Backed System

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I was one of the 42 Conservative MPs who signed a letter calling for a statute-backed system of press regulation. There were many on both sides of the House, and of course our friends in the press who suggested that this approach would see politicians licensing journalists and given the power to spike stories at will. Of course as Lord Justice Leveson went to great pains to explain on Thursday, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Change in the current system is clearly needed. Even the media itself is no longer trying to pretend that the existing system of self regulation is effective or successful. It's hard to argue otherwise, it was after all the PCC who took News International at their word when they claimed that phone-hacking was the work of "one rogue reporter". As a regulator it turns out that they had neither the powers nor the will to investigate the issue in any depth.

As Lord Justice Leveson said on Thursday, Lord Hunt and Lord Black's proposals for a new regulator has much to be commended, yet it clearly falls short of the credibility test. I agree with him when he says that any system of self regulation that sees editors sitting on the board of that regulator is still "the industry marking its own homework". A new regulator must be properly independent.

It's also clear that in order to maintain a free press Government and politicians cannot be involved in setting up that new regulator. That's why the press have to set up the new system and why it is the press and no one else that must develop an independent regulatory regime that will adhere to the Leveson Principles. It isn't for the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or even Parliament to tell them how to do it.

Whilst I suspect they will need no encouragement to do so I hope that they took heed of the Prime Minister's remarks this afternoon when he said that the press can get on and implement a new system now, there is no need to wait before a decision is taken on the need for a new statute to support it.

And this is where the debate now lies. Lord Justice Leveson has put forward the case for a new law, one that would have in his words "only the narrow purpose of recognising a new independent system of self regulation". It would not as some commentators claim seek to muzzle the press or pass control of it to politicians.

I was born and grew up in Baghdad, under Saddam Hussein's rule, so unlike many British politicians I have lived under a system of state sanctioned and controlled press. Perhaps as a result of this and coupled with my Conservative views, when I first sat on the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions my gut instinct was to oppose any form of statute-backed press regulation. But having listened to the evidence it was clear to me that the self-regulation in its current form doesn't work, a regulator needs statutory backing to give it teeth and importantly credibility in the eyes of the public.

Over the coming days, weeks and probably months I am sure this argument will rumble on. Editors and proprietors will continue to present the arguments as a grand battle between state censorship on one hand and the hard won liberties of Fleet Street on the other. What's clear though is that the public just wants us (both the politicians and the press) to get on with sorting it out and I hope the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition will do just that.