A letter from 42 distinguished lawmakers on the right and centre of politics calling for tough regulation of the press has created a storm of controversy in the British parliament. The statement, published in the Guardian is the first clear indication that the Conservative party is unlikely to reject out of hand any proposals for legal regulation of the press.
Senior Conservatives including former ministers Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Lord Fowler, sent the letter after the paper suggested that proposals for a tougher system of press self-regulation proposed by the existing Press Complaints Commission “had merit.”
But they argue that the proposals do not go far enough and they point out that Britain’s statutory regulation of broadcasters has not prevented television journalism from exposing corruption in public life.
The politicians say the Government should keep its mind open about some form of state regulation when Lord Justice Leveson publishes the findings of his inquiry into press ethics later this month.
Although in its coverage the Daily Mail acidly points out that “several of the signatories have faced embarrassing Press scrutiny,” the letter raises widespread concerns that new industry proposals for a revamped system of self-regulation for Britain’s newspapers is weak and ultimately flawed.
“No one wants our media controlled by the government but, to be credible, any new regulator must be independent of the press as well as from politicians,” the letter says. “We are concerned that the current proposal put forward by the newspaper industry would lack independence and risks being an unstable model destined to fail, like previous initiatives over the past 60 years “.
Most Conservative members of parliament are opposed to any kind of statutory regulation of the Press, including statutory underpinning. They are likely to give their backing to the industry proposals for reform which were set out by Lord Black, chairman of the funding body for the Press Complaints Commission.
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry he said the industry would introduce a form of ‘muscular’ self-regulation based on voluntary contracts with media and a new organisation able to launch investigations and levy fines of up to £1million but without any legal underpinning.
Although most industry people support the continuation of voluntary self-regulation, the stage is now set for a serious confrontation as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to support proposals from Lord Leveson if he concludes that the newspaper industry cannot be trusted to be entirely self-regulated.