This week sees the long awaited publication of the report by Lord Leveson into the ethics and conduct of the press. The inquiry was set up after it was revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, as well as the phones of servicemen killed in action which prompted public outrage. The inquiry was uncomfortable for both politicians and the press but it also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put things right and to place the newspaper industry on a firmer footing.
I believe passionately in a free press and think it has a vital role to play in a free society. But you can never have true liberty unless you also have accountability and the major weakness of the national press is that it harbours unaccountable power which has been abused and the end result is that the police have now had to get involved and make arrests of journalists. None of us should feel comfortable about that. It would be better by far to have a credible and independent regulator recognised in law so that we don’t have to have the police crawling through newsrooms in future.
The idea of replacing the current “self regulation” of the press with a new regulator backed by statute is anathema to some of the wealthy proprietors of the big national newspapers, but I have come to the view that the system would be far more independent and more stable if it had the benefit of recognition in the law. It would allow you to create real incentives for newspapers to take part in the system by creating exemptions from exemplary fines or by creating a more affordable system of arbitration so that newspaper editors didn’t live in fear of having to fight billionaires with deep pockets through the courts.
I spent several years as Press Secretary to David Cameron so saw the workings of our media up close. My experience led me to make my own submission to the Leveson Inquiry. In my evidence I said I thought that concerns about the impact of an independent regulator on free speech were hugely exaggerated. We already have a Broadcasting Act but some of the best investigative journalism in Britain is done by broadcasters on programmes like Watchdog and Panorama.
I also said that Lord Leveson’s inquiry could learn lessons from regional and local papers like the Western Morning News and the West Briton and Cornishman because, in all my experience, the editors of local newspapers have always approached the Editor’s Code far more conscientiously and diligently than the major national newspapers. This is partly because they are part of the community and feel a greater sense of responsibility. If national newspapers had behaved in the same way, the system might not be broken.
George Eustice can be contacted at email@example.com or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.