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Bullying MPs won't help the cause of press freedom

By Tim Montgomerie
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6a00d83451b31c69e2017ee4ee195d970d-150wiOn ConservativeHome today Nadhim Zahawi MP makes the case for independent and statutory regulation of Britain's newspaper industry. The MP for Stratford-upon-Avon argues that Conservatives have always stood up against "unaccountable power" and it is time to do so again - particularly for the benefit of the little guy:

"One of the main points of having a press regulator is to help resolve disputes before they make it to court. Celebrities are big enough to look after themselves, but not everyone has the legal muscle to sue a multimillion-pound company for defamation or breach of privacy. Many would much prefer a printed apology or right of reply to a long and costly legal battle. After all, as the internet has reminded us, free speech is a dialogue; it’s about hearing both sides of the story. The kind of regulator I envisage would focus on mediation, with credible sanctions as a last resort."

Nadhim and George Eustice MP were the instigators of yesterday's letter in which 42 Tory MPs (and two peers) rejected stronger self-regulation, Fleet Street's preferred way forward.

My understanding is that the actual number of Tory MPs ready to back statutory regulation is close to sixty. Many didn't sign the Eustice/ Zahawi letter because they feared nasty press attention. One MP told me: "If I add my name to the letter the bastards will simply have another go at my family but I'll be there in the lobbies when it matters".

The Telegraph's Chief Reporter, Gordon Rayner, certainly engages in some pretty rough journalism today...

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In a series of playing the man, not the ball we learn that George Eustice was apparently known as George Useless when he was David Cameron's press spokesman... We are reminded of Crispin Blunt's coming out as a gay man... of Caroline Spelman's son's use of banned substances... Gerald Howarth's claim for £123 of patio furniture.

The attacks aren't just about personal scrapes either. This is the entry for Malcolm Rifkind:

"One of only four people to serve as ministers throughout the 18 years of the Thatcher and Major governments, he came in for heavy criticism over his support of the poll tax whilst Scottish Secretary and for presiding over major defence cuts whilst Defence Secretary."

The Telegraph's attacks on 18 of the Tories who signed the letter can be at the bottom of this piece.

I am not a supporter of statutory regulation. I worry with The Telegraph that "once a press law is on the Statute Book, politicians will find the temptation to ratchet it up impossible to resist". Nadhim Zahawi is right to worry that stronger self-regulation might not work but too much is at stake for it not to be given a chance to work. I am worried that the bullying style of journalism in Gordon Rayner's piece will only be counter-productive, however. Supporters of press freedom might be wiser to make the positive case for an unshackled press. Michael Gove did so brilliantly at the Leveson Inquiry.

It may already be too late however. Political opinion seems to be moving solidly towards accepting Lord Leveson's recommendations and it is anticipated that he will advocate a regulatory system that is constituted independently of the press itself. The Independent reports today that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have met to discuss how a consensus in favour of limited regulation can be built. The newspaper says that Mr Cameron is under "immense pressure" from the newspaper industry. One Cabinet minister told ConHome that Number 10 had been told to look at his hostile press coverage over the last year and consider whether he wanted it to continue or end. Let me repeat: The bullying should stop. I don't suspect it will.

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