George Eustice is MP Member of Parliament for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.
When it comes to press regulation, the Conservative Party is
not as divided as it might at first seem.
Most Conservative MPs could agree with elements of both the letters
published in recent weeks. We all
believe passionately in liberty and free speech. We all oppose state control of the
press. And we all agree that the status
quo is not an option and there must now be a new regulator that is completely
independent, both of the press and of politicians. We agree on the aim, we just disagree over
what is required to get there.
Throughout the Leveson Inquiry, there was one question that
wouldn’t go away: how can you make a reality of an independent regulator that
has teeth without some form of modest anchor in statute? The flaws in the current proposal by Lord
Hunt are clear: the power rests with the “industry funding body” which would
have a veto over the appointment of the Chairman of the Trust and the power to
sack the Chairman and press board members if they don’t like what they are
doing. There is far too much reliance on
serving editors and executives and no role for real journalists working on the
frontline. Despite the headline claim
that there would be fines of £1 million, the small print makes clear that these
could rarely, if ever, be used. And the
whole system relies on voluntary contracts for just five years after which
anyone could walk away or renegotiate.
Some of the additional proposals by Lord Black would also be
tantamount to licensing for journalism.
He proposes a closed shop system whereby news organisations outside the
voluntary regulator would be denied access to government briefings, denied
accreditation for events and excluded from the Press Association. Conservatives don’t like closed shop systems
which seek to restrict access to information and many papers also have serious
There might be better ways to create incentives to join a
new independent adjudicator. During the
Leveson Inquiry, there was one proposal that even Paul Dacre was attracted to:
that anyone who participated in a new adjudicator with teeth would, in return,
be given legal protection against exemplary fines in the courts for defamation
or for breaches of privacy. As well as
giving members of the public access to justice for breaches of the law, this
would also enable a small, plucky newspaper being threatened by a billionaire
to call their bluff and require them to go to the adjudicator to resolve their
dispute, rather than the courts. Liam
Fox hinted at a similar idea in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when
he said that what we really need is a way of increasing access to justice for the
laws we already have.
A system along these lines would protect newspapers and
journalists as well as giving the public the access to justice that Liam Fox talks
about. There is just one problem: you
would need some form of statute to create these protections for the press. But would such a statute really mean the end
of the free world as some in the press seem to be claiming? I just don’t buy the argument that it
would. The US has the First Amendment
which is a statute hardwired into their constitution. The Defamation Bill is currently going
through parliament with the support of all parties and the press which will
enhance free speech in Britain. If you
get statutory changes right, you can actually strengthen free speech.
After Leveson reports, we need a dialogue about
how to implement something that works.
No Conservative would ever support a measure that undermined press
freedom but the press needs to meet us half way and at least engage in the
discussion rather than lashing out from the sidelines.