May: statutory press regulation could ‘encroach on freedom’

Home secretary tells Leveson inquiry that laying down laws to control the press might lead to ‘unintended consequences’

The home secretary, Theresa May, has questioned Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion that a form of statutory regulation of the press will be needed.

May told the Leveson inquiry in Tuesday she was concerned that laying down laws to control the press would “encroach on freedom” and lead to “unintended consequences”.

Initially she told Leveson she would not rule out statutory backing for a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission, but quickly added that she would not like to see a new body “hampering the important fundamental principle of freedom”.

When it was put to her that the new press regulation body might need a “statutory underpinning” to enable its decisions to carry legal weight in potential libel or privacy actions taken to the high court, she replied: “The statutory backing for a body that is otherwise completely separate from government, I think there are – I naturally worry about the law of unintended consequences … and the extent to which that’s then taken as a means to encroach on freedom through regulation of content.”

Leveson reiterated that he was not seeking to regulate the content of the press.

On Monday, towards the end of Tony Blair’s appearance at the inquiry, Leveson outlined some of his initial thinking on the future of press regulation, telling the former prime minister that any successor to the PCC would have to be independent of the industry as well of the state.

On Tuesday, May also denied that the former News International chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, put her under pressure to reopen Madeleine McCann investigation.

May told the Leveson inquiry that she had spoken to both Brooks and the editor of the Sun, Dominic Mohan, about the McCann case on 11 May last year.

Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, suggested the review was ordered at short notice and “maybe the same day”.

May said it was not ordered at short notice, adding that the Home Office had been in discussion about the possibility of a police review for some time, even under the previous government.

Jay asked: “Did Mrs Brooks say anything, words to this effect, that unless you ordered the review you would be on the front page of the Sun until that happened?”

May replied: “No, neither Mrs Brooks nor Mr Mohan made any indication of that sort to me. The nature of the telephone conversation was to alert them to the fact that the government was taking some action, that there was going to be this further work by the police here in the UK.”

Asked whether May had discussed the issue with David Cameron on or around 11 May, the home secretary said: “I don’t recall having a specific discussion with the prime minister. I know the prime minister was interested in this specific issue but I don’t recall whether I had a specific conversation with him.”

May confirmed it was a telephone conversation “at my instigation”.

Brooks was asked about the McCann review when she appeared at the inquiry on 11 May.

Asked whether there was an ultimatum or threat to the home secretary, Brooks told the inquiry: “I’m pretty sure there will not have been a threat, but you will have to ask Dominic Mohan.”

Brooks said it was not true that she had intervened personally with the prime minister and threatened to put May on the front page until the paper’s demands were met.

“I did not say to the prime minister we would put Theresa May on the front page every day. If I’d had any conversations with No 10 directly they would not have been particularly about that,” she said.

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