Press Regulation: where are we now? - Communications Committee Contents


15.  During the last 70 years those concerned with the system of press regulation in the UK have struggled to balance freedom of expression with the citizen's right to privacy. In this Chapter we consider the key inquiries since the First Royal Commission on the Press in 1947. This is summarised in our timeline, set out in Appendix 4.

Royal Commissions on the Press: 1947-1977

16.  The First Royal Commission on the Press was set up in 1947 with "the object of furthering the free expression of opinion through the press and the greatest practicable accuracy in the presentation of the news".[9] It was appointed following pressure from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and concentrated on allegations of inaccuracy, political bias and abuses of media ownership.

17.  The Commission reported two years later in 1949. The report found "a progressive decline in the calibre of editors and in the quality of British journalism".[10] The Commission recommended the creation of a General Council of the press with, as 20 per cent of its membership, "fair-minded, good citizens"[11] from outside the industry. The General Council was, however, not set up until 1953, when it was proposed in a Private Member's Bill against the background of a threat of political action to impose statutory regulation. The General Council was funded by newspaper owners.

18.  The Second Royal Commission on the Press was appointed in 1962 in response to a perceived failure to implement the recommendations of the First Royal Commission. It criticised the General Council "for not including lay members, and proposed statutory regulation unless its performance improved".[12]

19.  The report stated, "If … the press is not willing to invest the Council with the necessary authority and to contribute the necessary finance, the case for a statutory body with definite powers and the right to levy the industry is a clear one."[13] The General Council became the Press Council and the recommendations from the First Royal Commission were implemented, including the introduction of a 20 per cent lay member quota and a lay Chairman.

20.  The Younger Report on Privacy in 1972 criticised the Press Council for the lack of lay representation on its board. At the time of the report, lay representation comprised one sixth of the Press Council's total board membership. It also stated that "in future a critical adjudication by the Council should be given similar prominence to that given to the original article, and that the Council should codify its adjudications on privacy".[14]

21.  A Third Royal Commission on the Press was appointed in 1974 to "inquire into the factors affecting the maintenance of the independence, diversity and editorial standards of newspapers and periodicals and the public freedom of choice of newspapers and periodicals, nationally, regionally and locally."[15] Reporting in 1977, the Commission recommended a written code of practice for the first time. This was rejected by the Press Council.

Calcutt Reports: 1990 and 1993

22.  In 1989, following pressure from Parliament and "the era of tabloid expose",[16] the Government commissioned Sir David Calcutt QC to chair a committee to looks at press intrusion.

23.  The Committee's key objective was "to consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from the activities of the press and improve recourse against the press for the individual citizen".[17]

24.  This resulted in The Report of the Committee on Privacy and Related Matters, published in June 1990. Its key recommendation was to replace the Press Council with a new Press Complaints Commission (PCC) governed by a new Code of Practice. The PCC's remit was to adjudicate on complaints alleging breaches of the Code of Practice. The Code was to be drawn up by a committee of editors convened by PressBof.[18]

25.  The PCC was accordingly set up in 1991. The report from the Committee on Privacy and Related Matters stated that the PCC should be given 18 months "to demonstrate that non-statutory self-regulation could be made to work effectively"[19] and that if this did not happen then a statutory tribunal should be established. Discussing the recommendations in a television interview for Channel 4, David Mellor MP, the Minister for the Arts, said, "I do believe the press—the popular press—is drinking in the last chance saloon."[20]

26.  Sir David Calcutt reported back its progress in his Review of Press Self-Regulation, published on 14 January 1993. He stated that:

    "The Press Complaints Commission is not, in my view, an effective regulator of the press. It has not been set up in a way, and is not operating a code of practice, which enables it to command not only press but also public confidence…it is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry".[21]

27.  He recommended that a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal be set up. The Government did not formally respond until 1995. In its response it said it would not introduce statutory controls.


28.  The PCC stated that "The Code performs a dual function: it gives the industry a firm set of principles to guide it; and it gives the Commission a clear and consistent framework within which it can address complaints from members of the public."[22]

29.  Under the PCC regime the Code underwent a number of changes which are documented on their website. Some notable changes are laid out below.

Box 1: Notable changes to the Editors' Code of Practice
1998: The death of Diana Princess of Wales led to some revisions of the Code, including, "a ban on information or pictures obtained through 'persistent pursuit' … also made explicit an editor's responsibility not to publish material that had been obtained in breach of this clause regardless of whether the material had been obtained by the newspaper's staff or by freelancers."

2012: "The Public Interest rules are amended so they now require editors who claim a breach of the Code was in the public interest to show not only that they had good reason to believe the public interest would be served, but how and with whom that was established at the time."

Source: Press Complaints Commission, Editors' Code of Practice[23]

30.  In 2004 an annual Code review was introduced, at the suggestion of the then PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer.

House of Commons Select Committees


31.  The Fourth Report of the National Heritage Select Committee on Privacy and Media Intrusion was published on 24 March 1993. It said:

    "A balance is needed between the right of free speech and the right to privacy. The Committee's view is that at present that necessary balance does not exist, and in this Report it recommends action to achieve it. The Committee does not believe that this balance can or should be achieved by legislation which imprisons the press in a cage of legal restraint, and for that reason rejects those proposals in the recent report by Sir David Calcutt which could create such a cage. The Committee would be deeply reluctant to see the creation of any system of legal restraints aimed solely and specifically at the press or the broadcast media. It believes that self-restraint or, as the Committee prefers to call it, voluntary restraint, is by far the better way".[24]

32.  The Committee recommended the appointment of a new statutory press ombudsman.


33.  This inquiry examined privacy and intrusion by all media, including broadcast and print. It was undertaken in the context of the reform of broadcasting regulation and defining of responsibilities for Ofcom, the communications regulator.

34.  The Committee's report was published on 16 June 2003. Its recommendations included updating the Code in light of technological developments such as the interception of phone calls, and the establishment of a pre-publication team.

35.  The report stated that:

    "… the measures we recommend are aimed at enhancing: the independence of the PCC and aspects of procedure, practice and openness; the Code of Conduct; the efficacy of available sanctions; and clarity over the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone—not the media alone—into their private lives."[25]

Operation Motorman and What Price Privacy: 2006

36.  In 2003, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) launched Operation Motorman, an investigation into alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act. This was in response to a search of premises in Surrey which concerned the suspected misuse of data from the Police National Computer (PNC) by serving and former police officers.

37.  The report that followed the investigation, What Price Privacy: the unlawful trade in confidential personal information, was published on 10 May 2006.

38.  The report found "evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy that amount[ed] to an unlawful trade in confidential personal information."[26] It discovered that, "Among the 'buyers' [were] many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers."[27]

Phone hacking

39.  In 2006 Clive Goodman, News of the World's Royal Editor, and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator, were arrested on suspicion of intercepting the voicemail messages of the Royal Family. They were found guilty and sentenced to jail. In court it was "revealed that Mulcaire received a total of 2,266 requests from News International journalists in the period covered by his paperwork, 2,142 of which were made by four employees."[28]

40.  In July 2009, The Guardian published allegations that the practice of phone hacking had been used to gain information about a number of people, in addition to the Royal Family.[29] It stated that it included politicians as well as others in the public eye, such as sportspeople. The police decided not to revisit the 2006 inquiry. As a result, some of the alleged victims began private legal proceedings against News International (the owner of the News of the World) and Glenn Mulcaire.

Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions: 2011-2012

41.  This inquiry examined the often conflicting issues of the right to privacy and the "evolution of the law on privacy",[30] and the public interest and freedom of expression.

42.  The Report of the Joint Committee, published on 12 March 2011, said that "the current system of self-regulation is broken and needs fixing." [31] They found that the PCC "was not equipped to deal with systemic and illegal invasions of privacy"[32] and set out details for a reformed regulator.

43.  In addressing the news media directly the report said:

    "Whilst there is clearly demand for scandal and gossip, this should not stray into intrusion into people's private lives without good reason. Chief executives and boards of holding companies should take responsibility for ensuring that news publishers uphold high standards, with processes for protecting privacy firmly adhered to."[33]

Lead up to the Leveson Inquiry: Operation Weeting: 2011

44.  Further to evidence that had been heard in some of the private prosecutions following the conviction of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire in 2007, the police launched Operation Weeting in January 2011 into allegations of phone hacking. It was conducted alongside Operation Elveden, which looked into allegations of inappropriate payments to the police by those involved with phone hacking.

45.  The outrage from this, and subsequent accusations including the hacking of the voicemail accounts belonging to deceased soldiers and victims of the 7/7 terror attacks,[34] led to the closure of the News of the World in July 2011.

Launch of the Leveson Inquiry: 2011

46.  Two days after the closure of the News of the World by News International, the Prime Minister announced the inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson. He stated:

    "Starting as soon as possible, Judge 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."[35]

47.  This was to be part one of a two-part inquiry and was intended to report within 12 months. Hearings started on 14 November 2011. At the launch of the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson stated, "The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?"[36]

Leveson Report: 2012

48.  Lord Justice Leveson's report into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press was published on 29 November 2012. Box 2 below shows the key points raised in the report.

Box 2: Key points of the Leveson Report
·  New self-regulation body recommended

·  Independent of serving editors, government and business

·  No widespread corruption of police by the press found

·  Politicians and press have been too close

·  Press behaviour, at times, has been "outrageous"

Source: BBC, 'Press "needs to act" after Leveson' [37]

49.  Lord Justice Leveson made several criticisms of the PCC's role as well as the funding it received. He stated that, "The fundamental problem is that the PCC, despite having held itself out as a regulator, and thereby raising expectations, is not actually a regulator at all. In reality it is a complaints handling body."[38] The report also pointed to the funding of the Commission and stated, "Financially, the PCC has been run on a tight budget and without the resources to do all that is needed."[39]

50.  The Leveson Report also identified key failings within the Commission itself: "In practice, the PCC has proved itself to be aligned with the interests of the press, effectively championing its interests on issues such as … [section]12 Human Rights Act 1998 and the penalty for breach of … [section]55 Data Protection Act 1998. When it did investigate major issues it sought to head off or minimise criticism of the press."[40]

51.  One of the main recommendations of the Leveson Report was the creation of a new self-regulatory body. The details of this body are summarised in Box 3 below.

Box 3: The new self-regulatory body
·  The new self-regulatory body should be underpinned by a statute which should provide for a process to recognise the new body and ensure that it meets certain requirements and enshrine in law a legal duty to protect the freedom of the press. Ofcom should act in a verification role to ensure independence and effectiveness.

·  The Chair and board members of the body should be independent of the press and Government and should be appointed by an independent appointment panel. There should be no serving editor on the board.

·  The membership of the new body should be open to all publishers on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, including making membership potentially available on different terms for different types of publisher.

·  The new system should be funded by the media industry by agreement with the board of the new regulator.

·  The new regulator should have the power to direct appropriate corrections and apologies and impose sanctions of up to 1 per cent of turnover with a maximum of £1 million.

·  The new body should establish its own code with the aim of developing a clearer statement of the standards expected of editors and journalists.

·  The new body should continue to provide advice to the public in relation to issues concerning the press and consider whether to provide an advisory service to editors in relation to the consideration of public interest.

·  The new body should establish a whistle-blowing hotline for journalists who feel they are being asked to do things which are contrary to the Code.

·  The new body should consider requiring that newspapers publish compliance reports in their own pages and that a named senior individual within each title should have responsibility for compliance and standards.

Source: Olswang, The Leveson Report; a quick guide to the key recommendations for the media[41]


52.  There are clear parallels which can be drawn between the issues raised in past inquiries on the press and those raised in the Leveson report. The important issues are still the freedom of the press, the concern of private individuals over privacy, the limited effectiveness of a self-regulatory body and the ideological importance of a self-regulatory system. In the following chapters we consider the action taken after the Leveson Inquiry and Report.

9   John Jewell, 'How Many Drinks in that 'Last Chance Saloon'? The History of Official Inquiries Into the British Press', After Leveson, The future for British Journalism, ed. John Mair (United Kingdom: Abramis academic publishing, 2013), p 39 Back

10   Hugh Tomlinson QC, 'The New UK Model of Press Regulation', LSE Media Policy Brief 12, (March 2014) p 7: [accessed 10 March 2015] Back

11   John Jewell, op. cit., p 39 Back

12   MediaWise, PCC History and Procedural Reform (October 1999) p 1: [accessed 2 March 2015] Back

13   John Jewell, op. cit., p 39 Back

14   Media Standards Trust, Written evidence provided to the Leveson Inquiry (June 2012): [accessed 10 February 2015] Back

15   Hugh Tomlinson QC, op. cit., p 7 Back

16   John Jewell, op. cit., p40 Back

17   Press Complaints Commission, 'About the PCC': [accessed 10 February 2015] Back

18   See Footnote 5 for an outline of PressBof's role and remit  Back

19   Press Complaints Commission, 'About the PCC', op. cit. Back

20   Bob Franklin, Martin Hamer, Mark Hanna, Marie Kinsey, John E Richardson, Key Concepts in Journalism Studies, (London: SAGE, 19 May 2005), p 30  Back

21   John Jewell, op. cit., p 41 Back

22   Press Complaints Commission, 'Editors' Code of Practice': [accessed 5 February 2015] Back

23   Press Complaints Commission, 'Editors' Code of Practice', op. cit. Back

24   National Heritage Committee, Privacy and Media Intrusion (Fourth Report of Session 1992-1993) p 6 Back

25   Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Privacy and Media Intrusion (Fifth Report of Session 2002-03, HC458-I) Back

26   Information Commissioner's Office, What Price Privacy (2006) p 4: [accessed 6 February 2015] Back

27   Ibid. Back

28   'Leveson inquiry uncovers 28 NI staff linked to phone hacking', The Guardian (14 November 2011): [accessed 17 February 2015] Back

29   'Trail of hacking and deceit under nose of Tory PR chief', The Guardian (8 July 2009): [accessed 17 February 2015] Back

30   Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, Privacy and injunctions (Report of Session 2010-12, HC 1443, HL Paper 273)  Back

31   Ibid. Back

32   Ibid. Back

33   Ibid. Back

34   'News of the World: bereaved relatives of 7/7 victims 'had phones hacked' The Daily Telegraph (5 July 2011): [accessed 10 February 2015] Back

35   HC Deb, 13 July 2011, col 312  Back

36   The Leveson Inquiry, 'An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press': [accessed 26 January 2015] Back

37   'Press "need to act" after Leveson', BBC (29 November 2012): [accessed 10 March 2015] Back

38   The Leveson Inquiry, Executive Summary, op. cit. p 10 Back

39   Ibid. p 12 Back

40   Ibid. p 12 Back

41   Olswang, 'The Leveson Report: A Quick Guide to the Key Recommendations for the Media': [accessed 10 March 2015] Back

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