A free press is the cornerstone of a free country – one in which the Government and the rich and powerful can be held to account and their misdemeanours brought to the attention of the public.
At the time of writing I don't know what is contained in the Leveson report, which will be published later today, but I have every expectation that it will recommend some form of statutory control over the press. David Cameron should ignore this pressure and avoid being remembered as the Prime Minister who introduced state control over the press.
Many of us will have been appalled with some of the things we have seen in the papers. Indeed, some of us have been the victims of either malicious lies or lazy inaccuracies by leading newspapers in this country – the Mirror’s front page “Tory MP thumps Labour MP” not long after I was first elected certainly springs to mind for me! However, that does not mean that things would be better with state regulated newspapers.
The phone hacking scandal was something that brought shame on the newspaper industry, but that was something that was already illegal and for which people have rightly been sent to prison. Revulsion of activities that are already against the law is not a justification for statutory regulation of the press.
State regulation (indeed state ownership) of broadcasters did not stop the activities of Jimmy Savile at the BBC, which were seemingly known about by people there without any action being taken, and it did not stop events such as the terrible harassment of Jonathan Sachs by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.
The only people who will benefit from state regulation of the press are the rich and powerful. The more state control there is, the less opportunity there will be for people in authority to be held to account. Newspapers have played a tremendous role in highlighting things that Governments would rather have kept secret and bringing wrongdoing to the attention of the public.
I must also confess to being irritated by the sight of celebrities who are very happy to gain publicity in the press in order to boost their earnings and gain lucrative sponsorship deals only to then complain about press intrusion. Those who use the press for their benefit are in my opinion fair game for the press to expose. Such celebrities never seem to complain that their privacy has been breached when it involves a positive story – only when it is a negative one.
That is not to say that the current system of self-regulation cannot be improved. There are too many times when the PCC has seemed to be toothless ,and when much smaller corrections are buried away near the classified ads after an inaccurate major headline. These are issues that need to be addressed, but they can be done so through a beefed-up system of self-regulation.
We have also got to remember that the days of deep-pocketed newspapers being able to print things with impunity knowing that they had deeper pockets than the people they were writing about are long gone. Newspapers have been in serious decline for many years and all too often it is poorly-resourced papers who cannot afford to run legitimate public interest stories because the individual or company concerned has far more resources and the consequences of losing a legal case are too great.
Also given the advance of social media, particularly facebook, twitter and blogs, statutory regulation concentrating on the press would be anachronistic before it was even introduced.
Clearly if Mr Cameron stands up against the recommendations of Leveson then he will be pressed on why he spent so much money setting up an inquiry whose conclusions he has ignored, and I certainly wish he had never embarked on this course of action. However, this is not a decision which should be made on the basis of political expediency. This is a matter of principle and I very much hope that the Prime Minister will stand up for that true Conservative principle of freedom – in this case the freedom of the press.