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Ian Murray: Why the politicians just don’t get it

Southern Daily Echo boss Ian Murray, pictured, is one of the longest serving daily editors in the regional press and the current vice-president of the Society of Editors.

Here he gives his view on the press regulation controversy and explains why the current cross-party proposals are unacceptable.

 


I’ve come to the conclusion they just don’t get it.

Wanting always to err on the side of believing – hoping – politicians genuinely have the best interest of us all at heart, even the press, I can see how they could come to believe the Royal Charter they have created to oversee press regulation is not statutory interference in a free press at all.

However, as with the so-called concessions Hampshire MPand Culture Secretary Maria Miller unveiled when announcing an agreement had been reached by the three main parties in Parliament on Friday, this is an illusion and they are fooling themselves.

As I told the PM programme on Radio 4 on Saturday during a debate on the issue, you cannot have degrees of freedom. Either we have a free press in this country or we don’t.

A charter established by politicians, to the rules dictated by politicians – and their friends in the pressure group Hacked Off – and a regulatory body overseen by politician appointees, is far from free.

This would be statutory control by the state but under a veneer of independence, an imaginary hands-off by politicians who could take the charter back to Parliament and vote to tighten their grip at any time.

The apparent concessions to the regional press could be seen as an attempt to buy us off and leave the fight. However, I will accept these as a well-meaning attempt to address genuine practical concerns the 1,100 local newspapers have over the sheer cost of administering the new regulations and the threat to some publications’ very existence.

But these are practical considerations to be taken in addition to the overall objections from the industry as a whole towards the removal of the principle of a free press.

The Culture Secretary and others have made a grave, and I would say frankly insulting mistake in assuming that regional editors see this matter solely in terms of pounds and pence.

The principle of a free press is as important to the people of Southampton – or Portsmouth or Oxford or Glasgow – as it is for those who inhabit the corridors of Westminster.

It is we who police local democracy, we who hold local organisations and big business to account, we in the regional press who tackle at grass roots level issues of poverty, welfare, health, education, social services and public administration.

It is every bit as vital we are free from political interference to carry out our role as it is the national papers to carry out theirs.

The principle of a free press was founded 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and the creation of that country’s constitution which upholds the right to free speech, and a century before the French Revolution and its liberties. We have led the way and the world watches.

Those original hard-won freedoms were not for a national press which did not exist at the time, but for emerging local papers, be they in the capital or any of the nation’s towns and cities. Local editors then fought just as passionately for the right to be free of political control as they should and are doing now.

14 comments

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  • October 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm
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    “…you cannot have degrees of freedom. Either we have a free press in this country or we don’t.”

    We don’t. The press is already governed by tonnes of statutory regulation.

    “A charter established by politicians…, is far from free.”

    Simply not true. To put this into context, other examples of organisations underpinned by Royal Charter include the BBC, Bank of England, Royal Opera House, Institute of Taxation/Accountants… the list is huge and you’d have to be bonkers to suggest any have problems with political corruption, despite being some of the most powerful institutions in the UK.

    “This would be statutory control by the state but under a veneer of independence, an imaginary hands-off by politicians who could take the charter back to Parliament and vote to tighten their grip at any time.”

    This is wrong again, same old distortions and that are being pumped out by an industry and their politician mates who have been hampering Britain’s democratic process, bullying individuals and spreading lies for decades without consequence. Moreover, Parliament has a democratic mandate which you seem to be forgetting about – the public back Leveson recommendations by a landslide (according to YouGov).

    This scaremongering will fool no one who has actually bothered reading Leveson and the proposals.

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  • October 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm
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    @Pete, Rugby
    You think the BBC’s royal charter gives it freedom?
    Have you any idea the insane hoops the beeb has to jump though in order to satisfy pols that its news is impartial?
    The commercial channels are obliged to dance to the same loony tune, never showing favour, never holding an opinion.
    That’s how you want newspapers to be, is it?

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  • October 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm
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    In short, yes. Because having the hoops you refer to removed, which is also what Rupert Murdoch wants, would result in the UK having it’s own TV stations like Fox News. Do you think if Britain’s tabloids had their own TV channel it would improve democracy?

    The failure of self regulation has resulted in Britain’s biggest papers smearing, scaremongering, dividing, lying and betraying journalistic standards for decades, and it’s only because of the sensible caveats you refer to that the UK doesn’t have to put up with divisive, hate spreading Fox News type television channels.

    One problem lies with the press abusing its responsibilities – having an opinion is one thing, but smearing and electioneering on behalf of dodgy politicians, which is what national tabloids do, is irresponsible, undemocratic and unfair. Why shouldn’t they be expected to provide balance? If the Mail and the Sun both neglect to report the overwhelming scientific evidence for man-made global warming for example, then is that democratic?

    Another problem is the lack of accountability. The Sun published a front page about ‘killer mental health patients’ last week that simply wasn’t based on facts. In other words, the Sun splashed on inaccurate statistics, added to unfair stigma, and got away with it completely. Press freedom has never been under threat in this debate (the proposed system is already used in the Republic of Ireland), the only thing under threat is the press’s right to throw its weight around with complete disregard for whoever happens to be in its way.

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  • October 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm
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    This issue is actually very simple. In a free society, free speech is not on the agenda. It is non-negotiable.
    Free speech is not a privilege to be conferred by politicians. It is an inviolable right.
    The Leveson nonsense was prompted by the vengeful whining of a bunch of conmen and pick-pockets in parliament. They were furious that they had been found out by the Telegraph.
    If people such as Hacked Off are allowed to undermine our fundamental rights, then this country is even further down the pan than I imagined.
    The press should simply defy any attempt to curtail its rights.
    Freedom of the press is too important an issue to be left in the hands of politicians.
    We need something similar to the USA’s first amendment, which ensures free speech trumps everything.

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  • October 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm
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    Agree with Pete, Rugby. Also, for biter to just say ‘Hacked off troll alert.’ suggests Hacked Off / Pete’s views are winning the ‘free press’ argument….

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  • October 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm
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    Hacked Off and Pete seem to be incredibly persuasive. Also, if Biter can’t come up with anything more than ‘Hacked off troll alert.’ then journalists are really losing the fight!

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  • October 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm
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    Of course a regulated press will still publish untruths, the difference is these untruths will be ones that our political class approve of.

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  • October 17, 2013 at 9:31 am
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    The fact that One Voice had to make two posts to make the same point indicates Biter hit the mark there.

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  • October 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm
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    Oh Biter, i love you. Please stop snapping at me, cos it’s true what they say ‘one’s bark is worse than one’s bite’. But every time i read what you say, i’ve been bitten by the love bug and can’t stop biting one’s lip – for i love you, it’s true you know. Please don’t bite the bullet and tell me to bite the big one cos all i want is to be bitten by you forever. Please don’t bite one’s tongue and deny me your feelings for me, too. Cos it’s true i love you!

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  • October 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm
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    Pete of Rugby: overwhelming scientific evidence for man-made global warming??
    Oh, please, go and hug another bloody tree.
    Discredited lies turned into a religion by the chattering classes of the left.
    The press must remain free of any political interference

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