David Davis MP writes in The Daily Mail on the need for a free press


David Davis MP writes in The Daily Mail;

“Some years ago, when I was a Foreign Office minister, I used to be teased by my Continental counterparts about the British press.

‘Our newspapers would not ferret into such things,’ they would say as they watched Fleet Street’s intrusiveness and occasional ferocity expose yet another public scandal.

They were right, of course, because the Press in many foreign countries is still subject to statutory control, in effect licensed by the very government they are supposed to scrutinise.

For example, the French government has regulated the Press since 1881.

As a result, newspapers have been cautious about questioning authority and have a subservient attitude — best summed up by a former editor of Paris Match who said: ‘French politicians can sleep in peace. And with whoever they please.’

For example, the media failed to question President Francois Mitterand when he gave false reports about his health; covered up the fact he was suffering from prostate cancer when he stood for re-election; and did not report that he fathered an illegitimate child.

More recently, it was the U.S., not the French, media which exposed accusations against French minister and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Of course the British Press is totally free- despite having been bullied in recent years by Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.

But things here will get worse if a statutory framework is introduced — an unnecessary law which will deliver an undesirable outcome.

Politicians should be big enough to deal with Press criticism, and if they are not, they should get another job.

For more than a decade I have had a cordially hostile relationship with The Sun. This antipathy was explained to me by the then News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks who said: ‘When Rupert (Murdoch) wanted us to support Tony (Blair), the best person to attack was you. Then we were supporting Gordon (Brown), the best person to attack was you. Now we are supporting David (Cameron), the best person to attack is still you. Nothing personal.’

It was quite funny, and the truth is The Sun’s attacks have never really done much harm — like all good jokes they had a kernel of truth. But the paper’s attitude was the result of a far too close relationship between the Murdoch press and Downing Street.

At its worst, this sort of over-closeness can turn some newspapers into the media arm of the party in power.

Yet statutory regulation would do nothing to stop this sort of partisanship.

In fact, it would probably exacerbate it. Regulation would make editors even more wary of publishing stories which upset the Establishment.

If that happened, we would lose the best characteristics of the Press — but keep the worst.

Some argue that a small degree of statutory regulation would be acceptable.

This may appeal to those who uphold the principle of Press freedom but have been shocked by revelations of phone-hacking.

However, the great danger is that once governments acquire some control over the Press, they instinctively use every opportunity to acquire more.

If you want proof of how regulation does not work, look at the Jimmy Savile cover-up. This happened at the heart of the BBC, governed by a trust subject to a regulatory code enshrined in law and following Leveson’s formula of ‘journalism in the public interest’. Far from preventing misdemeanour, in this case it created a culture of complacency which allowed it to flourish without scrutiny.

Although the spotlight is currently on the printed press, we are witnessing the rapid rise in the number of 24-hour news outlets, websites, blogs and the increasing popularity of Twitter.

These provide instantaneous — and sometimes thoroughly irresponsible — stories such as the false allegations made against former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine. But they are not subject to regulation.

In any case, there was no need for more regulation to address the shocking behaviour of some newspapers.

Phone-hacking, breach of privacy, harassment, lying to courts and to Parliament is already contrary to criminal law.

The problem has been that the laws have not been properly enforced and the blame for this lies with the Met Police and the government in power at the time. Very serious failings in the police allowed a corrosive culture to thrive in some newspapers.

These failings happened partly because the Murdoch press was too close to government ministers, to other political leaders and to police chiefs. It behaved as if it were above the law.

Despite this, I have yet to hear calls for more regulation of politicians or police.

So what is the best way forward?

I believe that full statutory regulation of the Press would be an assault on our traditions of free speech. Similarly, an alternative of ‘light touch’ regulation would inevitably become heavier.

The answer is tougher self-regulation, enforced by a stronger regulatory body independent of politicians and the Press. This should have the power to investigate wrongdoing, to monitor newspaper editors and hold them to account, and to impose very large fines on those who break the rules.

Over more than a couple of decades of public life, I have had more skirmishes with the Press than most.
If newspapers had been tamer, my life would have been more comfortable. But the price would have been a weaker democracy.

As the PM considers how to respond to tomorrow’s publication of the Leveson Report, he should remember the wise words of Britain’s top judge.

The Lord Chief Justice said an independent Press will sometimes behave ‘with scandalous cruelty and unfairness, leaving victims stranded in a welter of public contempt and hatred or covenanted distress, but on the very same day, one or other of its constituent parts may reveal a public scandal.

‘The first should never happen. The public value of the second is priceless””