The Newspaper Society has written to Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam expressing the newspaper industry’s deep concerns over the threat to freedom of expression posed by new legislation, including the Freedom of Information Bill.
The Society has called for all forthcoming legislation to be subject to an “openness” and “freedom of expression” audit and asked for Dr Mowlam’s help in ensuring a more integrated and co-ordinated approach to issues of such fundamental importance to the public and the press.
The Society’s director, David Newell, says the industry is particularly worried about “the lack of a considered and coherent approach on freedom of expression issues” and the lack of detailed consideration of the actual implications of new laws for the citizen’s right to know.
The letter followed a meeting between the Newspaper Society and Dr Mowlam earlier this month.
The letter said: “As you heard at the meeting, regional newspaper publishers and editors are dismayed at the prospect of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill as currently drafted.
“The regional press has long experience of institutionalised official secrecy. We fear that the Bill’s provisions, if enacted, will be used and abused to legitimise refusals of information, without adequate rights of challenge.
“Meanwhile, the Local Government Bill sanctions debate and decision-making behind closed doors. The Bill will remove the public’s current statutory rights to attend decision-making meetings and obtain agenda papers in advance. The FoI Bill fails to provide an alternative route to obtain such information, because it fails to give the public effective rights to challenge refusal of access to such documents or the information contained within them.”
He said regional newspapers had already had to exert pressure on some local authorities in order to maintain openness and accountability.
“Bills intended to open up central and local government and improve democratic participation, openness and accountability could achieve the opposite.”
Other press concerns include the potential effect of the Terrorism Bill and other legislative proposals upon journalistic newsgathering, publication and protection of sources.
He reminded Dr Mowlam that previous discussions between the press and government on criminal justice and human rights issues had led to the late amendment of these bills to avoid unnecessary restrictions on freedom of expression, unwarranted extension of powers of prior restraint and new inroads into the principle of open justice. These issues should have been addressed at an earlier pre-legislative stage.
Existing safeguards such as the new human rights audit and the regulatory impact assessment of bills have failed to detect threats to freedom of expression and open justice.
The Society has recently held meetings with Home Secretary Jack Straw, Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe, Home Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Mike O’Brien, Minister for Local Government and the Regions Hilary Armstrong, and Home Office Minister Charles Clarke on the newspaper industry’s concerns over forthcoming legislation affecting freedom of expression.
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