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Cabinet minister speaks out against legal press curbs

A member of David Cameron’s Cabinet has today spoken out publicly against statutory regulation of the press amid signs that the government is preparing to reject the idea.

According to reports the Mail on Sunday, the Prime Minister has decided against the implementation of new legal curbs on the press ahead of the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s long-awaited report on Thursday.

The newspaper reported that Mr Cameron favoured Press Complaints Commission chairman Lord Hunt’s plan for a beefed-up system of self-regulation, with the threat of legal curbs if the industry fails to get its house in order.

Now in a further sign that opinion within the government is hardening against statutory regulation, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has told his local paper there is no need for it.

Mr Patterson told the Shropshire Star:  “There is absolutely no need for it and the government should leave well alone.”

“I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, who said in 1787 ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.’ I go along with that wholeheartedly.”

He added: “What happened with the News of the World affair was a matter of law, not industry regulation.”

He said he could not think of “anything that would discredit politicians more” than to bring in state regulation.

The North Shropshire MP met with Star editor Keith Harrison along with other local MPs to discuss the possible outcome of the Leveson Inquiry.

During the talks, Keith said it was important to distinguish between the worst behaviour of the national press and responsible local journalism that kept people informed with news from their councils and courts.

He said: “It was good to have the opportunity to discuss this matter with our local MPs and we are grateful for their time.

“Fundamentally, we are opposed to any form of state regulation and believe that our journalists should be able to report without fear, favour or influence from politicians.

“We understand – and share – the public’s anger over the disgraceful behaviour of some sections of the national press.

“But it is important to recognise that these incidents involved only a tiny proportion of Britain’s thousands of working journalists. Their wrong-doing was not a matter of regulation, it was a matter of criminality and the courts are now using existing laws to tackle these incidents.

“It is unthinkable that the Shropshire Star or any of its sister weekly titles would ever adopt such practices.

“We have always strictly adhered to the Press Complaints Commission Editor’s Code of Practice, and fully co-operated with the PCC on the rare occasions it has been in touch.

“The regional newspaper industry has also put forward proposals for a new system of independent self-regulation which would be among the toughest on the planet, if adopted.

“A free press is the cornerstone of a free society and any form of state regulation can only undermine that principle.”

Lord Hunt today said there is widespread agreement within the media for his proposed new self-regulation body.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:  “I’ve had one-to-one meetings with all publishers, who cover thousands of editors. They have all said they would sign up. This would be the first time ever that we have a binding in to a legal system through contracts.”

However Labour leader Ed Miliband has continued to press Mr Cameron to implement whatever recommendations Lord Justice Leveson comes up with in full.

Writing in The Guardian, he said failure to do so “will be seen as a clear breach of the promise” he made to the victims of phone hacking.