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Nick Pickles: A pro-business party of law and order should reject statutory regulation of the press

PICKLES NICKNick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Whatever happened to the Conservative Party being the party of ensuring crimes are properly punished and that regulation was kept to a minimum? The Leveson enquiry risks making a mockery of these principles.

There is a simple truth being overlooked on an almost daily basis in the run up to the publication of Lord Leveson’s report (now due, we learn, on November 27) that Big Brother Watch made clear in its evidence to the inquiry: everything that led to the Leveson inquiry was already illegal.

Why were these crimes not properly pursued by the police? Why were those responsible not brought to justice? Is the Information Commissioner a law enforcement body or a hands-off regulator? Lord Leveson is likely to answer none of those questions.  Nor will statutory regulation of the press solve any of these issues.

Indeed it does now seem inevitable he will propose putting the British press under a statutory regulator. The absurdity of doing this in an internet-age aside, the gravity of such a move cannot be understated.

Margaret Thatcher once said that the free press – where politicians leave journalists to do their job and journalists tell politicians how to do theirs – was, “for all its exasperations, essential to the functioning of a parliamentary democracy.” At home and abroad, generations of British politicians have defended the role of a free press motivated by the same belief. It beggars belief that now, a Conservative-led government

Do we need to resolve the chaos of British privacy law? Absolutely. Is state regulation of the press the best way to do this? Absolutely not. I don’t care if the person trying to gain access to my medical records, police file or bank account is a journalist, a private investigator or a police officer. What I care about is whether they have the legal right to access that information.

If they do not, then they are committing a criminal offence. Currently they can only be fined – Big Brother Watch, the Justice select committee and Home Affairs committee have all called for this to be changed, so that judges have the option of sending someone to prison for the most serious cases. This power is already on the statute book, it just has yet to be enacted.

This delay is simply no longer justifiable.

So when Lord Leveson reports, the Government should identify from his report the failings of the current system and, where criminal offences have been committed, set a course that gives criminals strengthened punishments and the authorities a stronger capability for law enforcement, and reject any proposal to pass new laws governing the news media.

Media regulation is a short-term issue. The long term issue is whether the Conservatives are still the party that does not jump to regulate or allow criminals to escape justice. The Government should use this opportunity to set a course based on the latter, as part of a wider narrative that sets out our values and not just short-term tactical considerations to pander to the prevailing wind, however much Lord Leveson may huff and puff.

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