MP warns against new press laws

By Sara Bryce

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

 

UPDATED 16:56*

ANDREW Turner has joined 85 politicians from all three major parties in a letter urging the Prime Minister not to bring in new laws for the press.

The letter, sent to The Daily Telegraph, was in anticipation of Lord Justice Leveson's findings, due to be published on Thursday, after speculation he may recommend state regulation of the press in the report that was commissioned in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

The letter reportedly warns that any regulations would lead to newspaper licensing, an idea brought in during the English Civil War in 1643, and abandoned 50 years later.

It instead calls for a restructuring of the self-regulatory system.

The letter is in response to one by David Cameron's former press secretary George Eustice, signed by 42 MPs, calling for strong laws governing the press.

*In a statement issued today (Wednesday) Mr Turner said: "This week, along with 85 Parliamentary colleagues from all the main parties I signed a letter opposing any new legislation to control the freedom of the press. 

"The reason I signed the letter is because I believe passionately that a free press is vital to a healthy democracy.

"Any freedom can be abused and let’s be frank, this has been; the press are far from innocent. 

"Rigorous journalistic standards should be observed, so that for instance, innocent people cannot find themselves branded a paedophile as Lord McAlpine has been. 

"Who can forget that elderly man’s words as he told us how the botched Newsnight investigation had left him 'devastated’ and how the coverage 'gets into your soul and you just think there is something wrong with the world’. 

"Nobody contacted Lord McAlpine before the programme was aired to offer him the right of reply to the false allegations. 

"They should have; and that they did not do so was unforgiveable.  But bringing in a new law would not stop it happening in the future – any more than having laws against murder means that there are no murderers!

"Much of the behaviour that was highlighted during the Leveson enquiry and so repelled the public is already illegal. 

"The hacking of poor Milly Dowler’s phone along with so many others was not simply distasteful, it was against the law, as is bribing a police officer.

"These scandals were not caused by a failure of press self-regulation; they came about because existing laws were not enforced. 

"Guilty people have since gone to jail once it was uncovered that those laws were being flouted.

"Let me be clear, I don’t think that the current situation is right.  If the press is to continue to self-regulate then the system must be far more rigorous, but let’s not forget that it was public outrage that brought about the closure of the News of the World, not enforcing a law about what the press can and cannot do.

"So some things must change; I personally have sympathy with the idea that those who are falsely accused should have the right to insist on a correction which carries the same prominence as the original story. 

"Editors may think more carefully if they have any inkling that a future front page story may spell out how they got it completely wrong in the same size headline. 

"I also believe there should be a mechanism for damages to be paid without going to court for those who are defamed by lazy or malicious journalism. 

"Whilst Lord McAlpine has the resources to appoint top lawyers to seek to restore his reputation not everybody who suffers at the hands of the press has such deep pockets.

"The problem with regulation is that once Government has established a right to intervene then it will undoubtedly find ways to extend it.  What starts off as sensible sounding protections against unsavoury practices will slowly and stealthily morph into laws against reporting things that embarrass the Government or give ammunition to the Opposition. 

"It is not what the Government intends but the rule of unintended consequences is simply how legislation works in practise, after all who would have forseen that health and safety legislation would be used by Wolverhampton City Council to stop SpongeBob Square Pants turning on the Christmas lights and disappointing thousands of children?

"Tomorrow Lord Leveson’s long awaited report is due to be published. 

"It is widely expected to recommend the Government to introduce new laws which would restrict the freedoms of our press, for the first time since 1695. 

"If that is what Lord Leveson recommends I will oppose it.  As Churchill said "a free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize". 

"It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes always seek to control the press.  A muzzled press would restrict the rights of all of us to free speech and I believe that is far too precious to give up."

Reporter: sarab@iwcpmail.co.uk

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