Prime Minister David Cameron has been praised by regional newspaper bosses for his stance on the controversial Leveson report into press standards.
Mr Cameron said he had “serious concerns” over recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson to underpin new regulations in law, warning that it could pave the way for more inhibiting restrictions to be added by politicians in years to come.
“He made it clear that the status quo is not an option, that Leveson has laid down a way forward, but he draws the line at the moment on the proposed ‘underpinning’ by legislation,” he wrote in his blog.
“He describes it as a ‘crossing of the rubicon’ which we should be very careful about – and he’s right. They are the same alarm bells going off in my head.
“We have a firm proposal on the table for an independent regulatory body – let’s see how the newspaper industry reacts to it, in an established timescale, before deciding whether we really should cross the rubicon.”
“The fear must be that any laws proposed to underpin a strong regulatory body would, little by little, grow to suppress and stifle free speech. When that day dawns then we will have lost something precious, something not gifted to us by nature, but hard won by generations who fought and in some cases died to protect our liberties,” he said.
“For those liberties to be snuffed out by a coalition of self- serving celebrities and MPs seeking revenge for the exposure of their expenses scandal would indeed be shameful.
“Hitler and Goebbels knew the value of first controlling the message as a way of controlling the people. They failed to defeat free nations. The message from history is clear.”
The Belfast Telegraph ran a splash today warning: We must keep MP’s hands of the Press.
In a comment piece running from the front page to further coverage inside analysing the report, the paper declared that the Leveson recommendations “go to far.”
However, he opposed any suggestion that regulation should be written into statute.
“Local newspapers have always been vehemently opposed to any form of statutory involvement or underpinning in the regulation of the press, including the oversight by Ofcom proposed in the report,” he said.
“This would impose an unacceptable regulatory burden on the industry potentially inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish.”
All major news publishers, he added, along with some internet news providers had already indicated they would join an independent regulation system provided there is no statutory backing.
“In practice, this independent self-regulatory system would almost certainly be stronger and more effective than any statutory model could ever be and could be put into place very quickly,” he said.
“Newspapers are ultimately accountable to their readers and must abide by the laws of the land. But, as the Prime Minister has today acknowledged, a free press cannot be free if it is dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognized by the state.”
John Wilson, deputy editor of the Worcester News – mentioned in Parliament by MP Harriet Baldwin in praise of the regional press – welcomed parts of the report which emphasised the importance of the freedom of the press, but warned that the “devil is in the detail.”
Also taking to Twitter was South Wales Argus editor Kevin Ward, who said it was important to draw the line between regional and national press – and said he did not believe there was a need for a new regulatory body to be written into law.
“Indpendent regulation of the press is fine, as is giving any new regulator powers to fine those who transgress,” he said.
“But there is no need for statutory underpinning of new regulation. Phone hacking, bribery and other such outrages are criminal acts. That they went unpunished was a failure of the police and the justice system, not of regulation.”
A comment piece published by the Leicester Mercury today (Friday) also supported the PM’s concerns over statutory underpinning of new regulartion.
“There seems to us to be a danger that once this principle is accepted, it may lead to future governments revisiting the legislation and tinkering with it further, and that gradually the traditional freedom of the press could be eroded,” the piece states.
“So we are pleased that the Prime Minister yesterday expressed his concern about the idea of bringing in a new law and we would urge MPs to think very carefully before taking such a step.”
He told Sky News: “What you can’t have is too much detail in any kind of statutory underpinning, that’s where the danger lies.
“Most politicians, once you give them a little nose into something, will try to find a very much wider thing down the line.
“We might have benign politicians now, but 10 years’ time? That’s the problem.”
Meanwhile, the NUJ welcomed Leveson’s comments recommending a “conscience clause” protecting journalists who refuse to act in what they feel is an “unethical” manner.
General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “A journalist should always have the right to refuse assignments and no journalist should be disciplined or suffer detriment to their career for asserting his or her right to act ethically.”
Lord David Hunt, head of the Press Complaints Commission, said he did not agree with all the conclusions arrived at in the report.
“We all agree that we must regain the trust and confidence of the British people to make sure that unacceptable, outrageous and illegal behaviour can never be allowed to happen again,” he said.
“I have to say, however, that I am not convinced statutory regulation including supervision of press regulation by Ofcom would have prevented the horrors of the past. What will prevent them happening again is getting the press to sign up to a fresh start and a serious improvement in governance and culture.”
President of the Chartered Institute of Journalists, Norman Bartlett, welcomed both the Leveson report and the Prime Minister’s reaction to it.
“Lord Leveson overwhelmingly supported the evidence that we gave to his inquiry which cleared the vast majority of the press from the phone hacking scandal and that statutory legislation would not have stopped what went wrong,” he said.
“We also welcome the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament in which he recognized the need for caution in implementing any legislation which might be used either, now or in the future, to regulate the Press.”
And a spokesman for the National Association of Press Agencies said they felt the report struck a “good balance” between the need to improve regulation while preserving the freedom of the press.
In a statement, the association said: “An independent regulator with the power to fine newspapers up to £1m for breaching a new code of conduct will find favour with the public, and will serve as a real deterrent against unacceptable conduct
“There is also merit in the proposals for making the new regulator truly independent of government and in barring serving editors from sitting on the board of the new body. Whether such a regulator needs to be underpinned by statute is open to question. NAPA believes that, if publishers respond quickly and positively to the proposals, legal underpinning may be unnecessary.”