Dear Reader, Tomorrow Lord Justice Leveson publishes his long-awaited verdict on future regulation of the Press in Britain. His inquiry was launched by the Government in response to the horrendous phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World.
Today I want to explain to you my concerns for the future of freedom – not just of the Press but of all of us – in this country should Lord Justice Leveson recommend statutory regulation of the press.
Regional and local newspapers will be affected by any recommendations in the Leveson Report. This is not just about attacking the national tabloids or bashing the Murdoch empire. I would be deeply concerned if statutory controls of any nature are proposed.
The Leveson recommendations, and the response of the prime minister and others to them, are crucial to local and regional newspapers.
The debate cannot be confined to the tabloids or the nationals, even though the Leveson Inquiry concentrated almost exclusively on the national Press.
I understand the public reaction to the allegations which led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry and were contained in the testimony of some of the witnesses to the inquiry.
In fact, I share the reaction.
The hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone, in particular, was revolting and shamed the journalists responsible for it.
They should be in jail for their actions.
I have worked in regional newspapers for almost 30 years. I do not know anyone in my part of the industry who was not horrified by the revelations of phone hacking and payments to police officers and other officials.
However, you should not be fooled into thinking that phone hacking and other such criminal acts happened because the Press was not properly regulated.
Illegal phone hacking, in particular, was not dealt with appropriately by the police and the justice system.
That it continued for so long apparently unchecked was a failure of those whose job it is to uphold the law, not of press regulation.
The reality is that newspapers are already subject to a variety of civil and criminal laws which restrict investigation, reporting and publication.
We do not need any more laws, we just need those responsible for enforcing the current laws to do their jobs properly.
It is too easy to think that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations will only have an effect on those who behaved so disgracefully and illegally. They won’t.
They will affect every newspaper in Britain.
Lord Justice Leveson and the Prime Minister made clear: “The problems there have been in our newspaper industry have not concerned regional and local titles, which perform an incredibly important function in our democratic system.”
The Argus is utterly opposed to the introduction of special statutory controls over the Press in any form.
No-one proposing statutory controls has yet produced detailed proposals or drafts to demonstrate what is actually meant and how it would apply – past attempts at press-specific controls would have produced draconian results in practice.
Do you really want politicians in charge of deciding what newspapers can and cannot publish?
This would be a fundamental constitutional change and it would end 300 years of hard-won freedom of the press from specific state control.
It would also be the thin end of the wedge.
Once politicians have even a tiny bit of control over the Press, how long before they increase those powers to prevent publication of material that would embarrass them?
One of the roles of the Press at all levels is to hold those in elected office to account. That would become increasingly difficult to do if statutory regulation is enforced.
Statutory regulation in any form and by any name is unacceptable to the regional as well as the national Press.
Some supporters of statutory regulation talk blithely of ‘light-touch legislation’.
Do not be fooled. There is no such thing.
You cannot be a little bit pregnant, and you cannot have a little bit of legislation.
The Argus has supported the Editors’ Code of Practice and the system upheld by the Press Complaints Commission.
It has worked well for the regional press but I accept it has failed at national level.
Therefore, I understand why there are calls for a tough new independent system of regulation.
The Argus, alongside other national and regional newspaper publishers, supports the proposals for just such a new system of regulation for the press.
However, that does not require statute.
The new system would be based on binding contracts rather than statute and it would – while preserving a fast, free and fair way of dealing with readers’ complaints – also set, oversee and maintain standards, with new investigation powers and severe sanctions, including fines of up to a million pounds.
Bringing in new laws to regulate the Press would take time and cost a small fortune.
The chances of any statutory regulation being in place during this Parliament are slim in the extreme.
By contrast, the scheme suggested by the newspaper industry could be up and running next year with no cost to the public purse in this age of austerity.
If you share my concerns about our future freedoms, please write to your local MP. Statutory regulation of the Press is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and would see the Argus and hundreds of other local and regional newspapers punished for the sins of a tiny percentage of the Press.
That cannot be right.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
As always, the support of our readers means everything to us.
Yours sincerely Kevin Ward Editor, South Wales Argus