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Media industry urged to 'fight tooth and nail' over FOI changes

The media industry must “fight tooth and nail” against proposals to introduce new fees regulations to freedom of information laws, a top newspaper lawyer has said.

Alastair Brett, legal manager at The Times, said the FOI Act was a “mainstay of journalism” and he hoped Lord Falconer – who left the Cabinet along with Tony Blair last week – would go down in history for introducing it.

He was speaking at The Law Society in London, where he stepped in for the former Lord Chancellor who had been due to speak at a law seminar there organised by the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

Alastair said he did not believe Lord Falconer’s heart had been in FOI, and as soon as the ‘cash for honours’ scandal hit the media became the enemy.

He said: “Gordon Brown has got to have a clean sweep and repair the relationship with the media.

“If we are to do our jobs properly we have to be the eyes and ears of the public.”

He said he hoped Jack Straw, the new Lord Chancellor, would consider scrapping new fee regulations, and suggested different rules might be applied to information deemed to be in the public interest.

The legal manager also slammed the introduction of other legislation such as tighter data protection laws, which if broken could leave journalists facing two years in jail.

And he hit out at conditional fee agreements, which allow lawyers to double their fees if they win, saying the situation was “out of control”.

He warned: “This Government will find itself in the European Court of Human Rights if a regional paper or magazine goes to the wall because it cannot afford to fight a CFA-driven action.”

Libel laws should also be reviewed, he said, suggesting “compulsory arbitration” at the first stage of the process would save time and money by immediately considering what an article actually means.

He said: “A free media and a free judiciary are two essential things in democracy today.

“This Government has clearly given up both with the judiciary and the media. There is real tyranny in a subservient press and we have got to be careful that we don’t go down that route.”