Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston: "Why I'll oppose attempts to use the law to regulate the Press"
Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, on why she opposes the Leveson report's call for a new press watchdog to be underpinned by a change in law.
If you believe that a free press is essential to maintaining our freedom and protecting against corruption then you are likely to be instinctively opposed to State regulation. That said, the relationships between the powerful, the police and the press have themselves been accused of corrupting our democratic process and those entrusted to defend it.
When it comes to politics, where does the need for open access to those whose job it is to report on the news end and collusion or undue influence begin? Where are the acceptable boundaries for the police in their relationships with the press? In an internet age does it even matter what we regulate in print as it will inevitably appear with even less control online? What of the innocent victims of press intrusion and the fact that in most cases only the wealthy can afford legal redress when failed by a toothless regulator?
No wonder that David Cameron decided to ask for an independent judge-led inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
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Leveson states that: "The press, operating properly and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of democracy."
But he also points out that with the significant and special rights of the press come responsibilities to respect the truth and obey the law as well as to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals. The Inquiry was set up not only to open a window into the press but to make recommendations for change.
No organisation in this country should be unaccountable for wrong doing or above the law. The most disturbing practices aired during the Inquiry were already against the Law but it is hard to separate them from the cultural attitudes amongst certain editors which allowed them to take place.
Leveson sets out sensible proposals for transparency regarding contacts between politicians and the press and also between the press and the police. He recommends a conscience clause to protect journalists from undue pressure to behave unethically with a whistle-blowing hotline for them to report malpractice.
I support Leveson's proposals for independent self-regulation organised by the media and in particular the independence of appointments to the regulator with no serving editors on the board. He sets out the way in which an arbitration service and rapid complaints handling service could be equipped to impose significant fines and demand appropriately prominent apologies. The regulator would have powers to investigate. Crucially, involvement in such a body could confer protections for both the Press and complainants alike where failure to use the arbitration service and hence the need to use the courts would result in far greater penalties or a failure to be awarded costs. This system could in theory also apply to online media but the failure to consider the impact of social media was the glaring omission from this Inquiry.
There are concerns about the use of super injunctions by the wealthy and powerful. Under Leveson's proposals the advisory arm of the regulator could advise and such advice could be used to support the case for publication in the event of legal action. Even if a paper were to lose that action in court, the claimant could find themselves meeting all costs as a result of not using the independent system.
Leveson's most controversial recommendation is for legislation to recognise the new self-regulatory body. The question is whether this represents statutory regulation of the Press? Once that is written into law it is all too easy for the lines to be re-drawn to regulate what the press can or cannot say, or to exclude those whose views are unsympathetic to the government of the day.
Whilst Leveson explicitly states that he does not feel this would be the case and also suggests that we could legislate for the independence of the Press, it should concern us that once a line has been crossed to "underpin" the regulator in law, it may result in a Press that is directed or restricted.
In my opinion, it is right that we should be wary. Any compulsion to join a regulator would amount to State regulation, threatening free speech and democracy, and that would be a high price to pay. The clamour for action has been driven by activities which were already illegal.
Cameron is right not to rush to accept Leveson, however reassuring and wise he may appear. We need a full debate about the wider implications. The British Press may have enjoyed the longest pub crawl in history through last chance saloons but they have also protected our freedoms, entertained and informed us. If they are over-regulated, we will simply drive more people to seek their scandals from online sources with almost no accountability at all. If newspapers become irrelevant, then who will buy them at all?