Lord Justice Leveson has now delivered his report to the Prime Minister. Not sure its an issue that excites my constituents, but its going to dominate 'The Village' for days. On Monday, I sent an article to a national newspaper, which was not published, which represents my 'take' on the issue. So here it is;
A free press is as important to a civilised society as free-running sewers. Their effect is similar. Neither are looked on with affection and both are capable of carrying deeply offensive material. But try to imagine life without either. All sorts of detritus would be allowed to fester uncleansed. We need a free press to “keep the waters pure”. Thomas Jefferson wrote “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers, or newspapers without a Government, I shall not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I agree with Jefferson. When we consider Lord Leveson’s Report we should remember that another way of describing the ‘freedom of the press to publish’ is the ‘right of the citizen’s to know.’
Appearing on the radar of a newspaper can be a very uncomfortable experience. I’ve had my share over the last 30 years. I know what it’s like to be brought low by unfair coverage. Only last week, the Daily Mirror set aside three pages on consecutive days, portraying me as a “Tory Gun Nut” – as inaccurate a portrayal as its possible to make. I’ve had threatening letters and emails giving me both barrels. But I have no complaint. If I allow my quirky sense of humour free rein on twitter, I’m inevitably going to take the odd hit. Anyway, I could see the humour as well as the outrage in the reporting. Anyone who can’t take a bit of stick shouldn’t be in public life - or the entertainment business.
Much of the clamour for statutory regulation stems from the outrage felt about the hacking of mobile phones by a minority of journalists. I felt the same outrage. The nation was rightly horrified. The uprising of public anger is what led to Lord Justice Leveson being asked to hold the inquiry, which has produced the report just presented to David Cameron. But phone hacking is illegal. What happened was an abject failure of law enforcement. Of course the press have behaved badly, and the current system of regulation will have to be significantly strengthened. The press realise this as well. The debate is going to be what form this change takes.
While I am implacably opposed to the state regulating the press, I know there must be change. The people of Britain expect change. It’s not possible to be precise about what this change should be until the Leveson Report is public on Thursday, and we've had time to digest it.. Many will demand statutory regulation of the press (for the first time since the Middle Ages). No doubt it will be dressed up as a 'small step' involving 'statutory underpinning'. It will sound innocuous.They are wrong. I will want to see some form of effective, strong, genuinely independent self regulation, backed up by fines that hurt, and threats of going further if it fails.
If we introduce statutory regulation, even if disguised under gentle weasel words, it will hasten the end of our newspaper industry, already under threat from Internet based news sites. It will tip the balance even more in favour of digital platforms. It will be especially destructive of our much valued local newspapers. It will do harm to our way of life. After digesting the contents and recommendations of Lord Leveson, we will have to do something, but for the future of our civilisation, let it not be statutory regulation.
Not everyone is going to agree with. At present my own party seems split in half. But I'm hopeful that after reading His Lordship's report, there will be a greater measure of agreement.