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George Eustice MP: If you get statutory changes right, you can actually strengthen free speech

George EusticeGeorge Eustice is MP Member of Parliament for Camborne, Redruth and Hayle.

When it comes to press regulation, the Conservative Party is not as divided as it might at first seem.   Most Conservative MPs could agree with elements of both the letters published in recent weeks.  We all believe passionately in liberty and free speech.  We all oppose state control of the press.  And we all agree that the status quo is not an option and there must now be a new regulator that is completely independent, both of the press and of politicians.  We agree on the aim, we just disagree over what is required to get there.

Throughout the Leveson Inquiry, there was one question that wouldn’t go away: how can you make a reality of an independent regulator that has teeth without some form of modest anchor in statute?  The flaws in the current proposal by Lord Hunt are clear: the power rests with the “industry funding body” which would have a veto over the appointment of the Chairman of the Trust and the power to sack the Chairman and press board members if they don’t like what they are doing.  There is far too much reliance on serving editors and executives and no role for real journalists working on the frontline.  Despite the headline claim that there would be fines of £1 million, the small print makes clear that these could rarely, if ever, be used.  And the whole system relies on voluntary contracts for just five years after which anyone could walk away or renegotiate.

Some of the additional proposals by Lord Black would also be tantamount to licensing for journalism.  He proposes a closed shop system whereby news organisations outside the voluntary regulator would be denied access to government briefings, denied accreditation for events and excluded from the Press Association.  Conservatives don’t like closed shop systems which seek to restrict access to information and many papers also have serious doubts.

There might be better ways to create incentives to join a new independent adjudicator.  During the Leveson Inquiry, there was one proposal that even Paul Dacre was attracted to: that anyone who participated in a new adjudicator with teeth would, in return, be given legal protection against exemplary fines in the courts for defamation or for breaches of privacy.  As well as giving members of the public access to justice for breaches of the law, this would also enable a small, plucky newspaper being threatened by a billionaire to call their bluff and require them to go to the adjudicator to resolve their dispute, rather than the courts.   Liam Fox hinted at a similar idea in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when he said that what we really need is a way of increasing access to justice for the laws we already have.

A system along these lines would protect newspapers and journalists as well as giving the public the access to justice that Liam Fox talks about.  There is just one problem: you would need some form of statute to create these protections for the press.  But would such a statute really mean the end of the free world as some in the press seem to be claiming?  I just don’t buy the argument that it would.  The US has the First Amendment which is a statute hardwired into their constitution.  The Defamation Bill is currently going through parliament with the support of all parties and the press which will enhance free speech in Britain.  If you get statutory changes right, you can actually strengthen free speech.

After Leveson reports, we need a dialogue about how to implement something that works.  No Conservative would ever support a measure that undermined press freedom but the press needs to meet us half way and at least engage in the discussion rather than lashing out from the sidelines.


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