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Industry leaders put would-be MPs on the spot

Election candidates are being challenged to pledge their support for a free and independent media in a series of questions drawn up by the Society of Editors.

The Q&A calls on politicians to accept that journalists should be encouraged rather than hindered in its work of exposing wrong-doing.

It wants to them to back root and branch reform of libel laws, and to recognise that the media’s role in uncovering the parliamentary expenses scandal will ultimately enhance respect for politics.

The questions accompany a dossier drawn up by former editor and journalism professor Peter Cole showing how media freedom has been undermined further since Britain’s press was described as only half-free by Harold Evans in the mid-70s.

SoE President Donald Martin, editor-in-chief of the Herald and Times, Glasgow and editor designate of Scotland’s Sunday Post said: “It is simply astonishing that in the first decade of the 21st century there are now more threats to the media than when Harry Evans called us to arms in 1974.

“There are too many obstacles and too much misguided and ill-informed criticism often from vested interests that undermines the media’s vital role in a democracy.

“All parties claim to support freedom of expression. We shall look at this regularly and at the election after this one to see if they have lived up to those commitments.

“While the media may be imperfect, it must be free, warts and all, to investigate, expose and criticise on behalf of the public.”

The SoE’s ten questions to parliamentary candidates:

1. Are freedom of expression and free and independent media vital to a free and democratic society?

2. Should that principle be enshrined in any new Bill of Rights or other constitutional legislation?

3. Do you accept that the media played an important democratic role in revealing the problems of parliamentary expenses which will, in the long term, improve respect for politicians?

4. Should the media be encouraged to investigate wrongdoing rather than be hindered in its work?

5. Should there be root and branch reform of the laws of libel which have remained largely unchanged for more than a century?

6. Should lawyers in no-win-no–fee cases be allowed to double their fees and in effect make 130pc profits?

7. Should government and organisations acting on behalf of the public and spending public money be required, through the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act, to be open about their work, releasing information to the media and the public unless there is an extremely good reason for keeping it confidential?

8. Should the media be encouraged and allowed by law to properly report family courts in order to promote public confidence in the judicial system?

9. Should government, recognising the public interest in vibrant, free and independent media, find ways of freeing media organisations from unnecessary bureaucratic controls and economic pressures that threaten their viability?

10. Should regulation of the press remain independent of government and the law and should regulation of broadcasting be relaxed to reflect the expansion of channels and global competition from digital media?