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True Tories want a press that is free but accountable

11 November 2012

Is the idea of any form of statute relating to the press inimical to liberty and therefore incompatible with Conservative belief?  Fraser Nelson argues that it is but it is time for Conservatives to think again and for journalists to reassess who is really on their side in this debate.

People elect Conservative Prime Ministers to sort things out.  They expect us to take difficult decisions and to confront unaccountable power along the way.  The unavoidable truth is that there is unaccountable power vested in the hands of newspaper editors and proprietors which has contributed to the current crisis in journalism.  Why do wealthy individuals want to own newspapers?  They don’t exactly make much money. Rightly or wrongly, many think that by owning or controlling a national newspaper, they are also buying access and power. That ought to concern Conservatives.

Some Tories talk about the press as if it is on palliative care.  Don’t do anything that might upset the patient, they say, just offer a good bed side manner and let them fade away. I don’t want newspapers to die, I want them to thrive.  It is time for journalists to reassess who is really on their side: the craven politicians who suck up to them but secretly want them gone, or the politicians with the courage to deliver uncomfortable truths that might actually secure a future for our press?

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Throughout the final module of Lord Leveson’s Inquiry, there was one question that wouldn’t go away: how can you make a reality of independence without some form of statutory anchor?  The flaws in the proposal put forward by Lords Hunt and Black are clear.  The power behind the system will be vested interests in the industry exercised through a reincarnation of the Press Board of Finance.  They will have the power to veto the appointment of the Chairman.  If they don’t like what the new commission is doing, they will have the power to sack the chairman. There will still be enormous influence given to serving editors and executives rather than independent people.  It is a voluntary system of five year contracts.  If a newspaper doesn’t like the judgements against them they can walk away or demand a renegotiation of the contract.  For all these reasons, the proposal is likely to be unstable and destined to fail.

Some say that we should just leave press regulation to the police.  Laws already exist, the argument goes, and we just need the police to enforce the law more thoroughly.  It is a curious thing that those who claim that any form of regulator established in statute would have a ‘chilling effect’ on our press, then go on to advocate a system which envisages the police kicking down doors and launching dawn raids on newsrooms as a matter of routine.

We should not feel comfortable with the fact that we tolerated a system of self regulation that failed on such a catastrophic scale that the end result will be dozens of journalists facing trial and possible imprisonment next year.   It would be better by far if we had a credible and independent system of regulation backed in statute so that we need not involve the police in Britain’s newsrooms in future.

George Eustice is the Member of Parliament for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle

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Show comments
  • Sarah

    It’s not the illegal stuff that worries me about the press and media. It’s the legal harm they do that is much more corrosive. There’s no law against those elements of the press, (or film industry or music industry or book industry or advertising industry) that put out sexist and misogynist propaganda that incites hatred and violence, nothing the police can do about it even if they wanted to.

    It might help if parliament plugged the anomaly in the anti-hate crime legislation and added sex/gender to it to join all the forms of discrimination that affect men.

  • Sarah

    Though the potential chilling effect of police kicking down pressroom doors is mitigated by their being on the payroll.

  • Troika21

    I don’t have much sympathy for newspapers at the moment. They got themselves into this mess by ditching investigative journalism and concentrating on gossip and scaremongering.

    ‘Press Freedom!’ they cry. And look what it was used for.

    Not that I want them to be regulated. Better to reform our laws (especially libel laws) to allow those unfairly maligned to hit back at unscrupulous editors.

  • andagain

    Maybe it is just me, but the sight of Members of Parliament wanting the press to be accountable to a body created by Parliament does not reassure.

  • Colonel Mustard

    “Is the idea of any form of statute relating to the press inimical to liberty and therefore incompatible with Conservative belief?”

    Yes. Instead of trying to peddle yet more regulation and taxpayer funded bloatocracy with weasel words from within the sheeps clothing of the Conservative party you should cross the floor and advocate for that party which is apparently more in tune with your beliefs. As if you and your colleagues in that House of Ill Repute haven’t got enough to do already.

  • Daveyyy12

    Not sure what a true Tory is so have not bothered reading the article as it will just be a justification for restricting freedom using the concept of the mythical true Tory.

    If you want a free society you need a free press.

    George is telling us he does not believe in freedom.

    • HooksLaw

      you need a legal press that is itself open to critisism.

      • Vulture

        George Eustice was widely derided as ‘George Useless’ when he presided over Dave’s hopeless Media operation. He was one of the Tory ‘forty thieves’ who wrote to the Guardian demanding that a free press be muzzled. He is a disgrace and his appalling views can be totally discounted.

      • Daveyyy12

        Legal.. Who decides what is legal, Tom Watson, Lord Ahmed, Gordon Brown, Caroline Lucas, Amnesty International, FOE, Green Peace, George Monbiot, UAF, HnH, Billy Bragg..

        The list of freedom haters seems almost endless.

        In a free society you just express yourself in anyway you want.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    We don’t need another quango or an Ofpress. We need two things. Firstly, the law to be enforced if broken. The whole hacking thing could have been dealt with in this way. Secondly we need an available recourse to law for those who feel harmed by the media (I don’t say the press here, broadcast too.) for which I propose an entension of the small claims court to cover such matters. No need for a new court or procedure, it is already possible to claim online in a few minutes. Make it simple and fast, limit the size of compensation and costs. Give the court the power to order a retraction in print in the same size as the offending article. For the rich? Nothing, the high-priced QCs will have to make their money elsewhere. The idea that a rich person loses a million by having their honour besmirched but a poor person does not is ridiculous.All this could be done quickly with minimal resource. No long inquiries, no jobs for the boys, no quango. If it doesn’t turn out to work after say five years, find a plan B.

    Now what are the chances of George Eustice coming back to read this?

    • HooksLaw

      Its a moot point whether so called hacking is illegal. The NOTW fiasco erupted when it was wrongly claimed by the Guardian that they had deleted Dowler’s messages.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Arrests have been made. whether it is a crime or not will be decided in court, all quite separate from Leveson, and not requiring any new laws or bodies.

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