In 1960, the young Margaret Thatcher forced councils to open up their meetings to the scrutiny of the newspapers. Eric Pickles and Bob Neill cited Thatcher as they pushed the right for bloggers, citizen journalists and Tweeters to report from local council chambers. By 2011, it was time to prevent councils denying access to web journalists and bloggers, simply by refusing to classify them as press.
The spirit of these measures was upheld in the House of Lords ruling in Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd (1993): “It is of the highest importance that a democratically elected government body, or indeed any governmental body, should be open to uninhibited public criticism. The threat of a civil action for defamation must inevitably have an inhibiting effect on freedom of speech.”
If these arguments for the benefits of local scrutiny made sense in 1959, 1993 and 2011, they still make sense now. It is in this light that Lord Leveson’s proposals should be viewed on Thursday. The pitfalls of government regulation of the national press are real enough, but at least national newspapers tend to have wealthy proprietors and top lawyers on speed-dial. Low circulation local newspapers, let alone individual campaigners and bloggers, are less fortunate.
Even under existing laws, South Tyneside Council has managed to spend £142,000 of taxpayers’ money chasing the blogger ‘Mr Monkey’ in a three-year international court battle. Already some left-wing councils continue to push independent local media out of business with ‘free’ Town Hall Pravdas. The consequences of much more onerous regulation for local and open scrutiny can only be imagined.
Consider for a moment the potential chilling effects of letting through any ill-considered or deliberately stifling press regulation.
It could strengthen the hands of local government chiefs in their battles with underpaid local reporters and selfless campaigners.
It could adversely impact all taxpayers, pushing up their council tax. Lawyers don’t come cheap, and whenever councils are fighting political battles in the courts, it’s local residents who must pick up the tab. Human nature being what it is, councils facing reduced and cowered scrutiny will inevitably be less fastidious about spending taxpayers’ money wisely and responsibly.
It could undermine the whole thrust of this government’s localism agenda, which twins greater local powers with greater local scrutiny.
Ministers and MPs will rightly be examining Lord Leveson’s proposals for evidence of how they could hinder efforts by national newspapers to expose corrupt, unethical and wasteful behaviour by the rich and powerful. They should also be hyper-sensitive to any measures that would empower local authorities eager to prevent exposes of their salaries, perks, waste, corruption or simple bad decisions – and prevent them becoming law.