December 6 2013 Latest news:
Joseph Watts, Political editor
Saturday, November 10, 2012
Two Norfolk MPs have signed an open letter backing the idea of new laws to regulate newspapers in Britain.
North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham and Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman were among 42 Members of Parliament who put their name to the letter, published in a national newspaper.
Their intervention comes weeks before Lord Leveson will publish a report from his inquiry into press ethics, launched in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, which will make recommendations on regulation.
Mr Bellingham said: “The worst excesses of the press have stemmed from the fact that the ‘public interest’ defence [used by editors to justify what they print] has become far reaching and elastic.
“It has meant whatever editors have wanted it to mean. We need to balance things so that the system not only protects robust journalism, but the public as well.”
He added: “The idea of the letter, sent from a significant number of MPs from across the party, is that we feel there’s an opportunity now to get this right and I feel it’s very important that we put this marker down.”
Mr Bellingham pointed out that statutory regulation had not stymied the broadcast media or the legal profession from carrying out its work effectively.
Currently the newspaper industry regulates itself, but calls for a tougher system imposed through statutory regulation have mounted in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and other press misdemeanours.
As a result the newspaper industry itself brought forward proposals on how things should change; consisting of a beefed up form of self regulation.
Their plan included a new regulator with the power to call editors to give evidence and fine publishers up to £1m.
Meanwhile papers would have to sign ‘contracts’ promising to uphold a code of conduct, which if broken would leave the open to action in the civil courts.
But the letter signed by the Norfolk MPs argues the proposed system would not be credible because it was not independent of the newspaper industry.
Mr Freeman said: “I signed the letter because I think some things have gone badly wrong with public trust in the media, just as with banking, politics and other institutions in modern Britain, and we need to tackle it.
“Of course we need a free press to protect our freedoms and hold those in positions of authority to account. But as Milly Dowler and other cases have shown, self regulation is not working.
He added: “We need to wait for the findings of the Leveson Inquiry at Christmas. But we also need a public debate about the appropriate controls on press freedom.”
The letter re-ignites a debate within the Conservative party, as several high profile figures, including education secretary Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson, have spoken against press regulation.
Mr Johnson wrote in an article recently: “One of the reasons London is a great place to live and invest in is that we have the stability that goes with the rule of law, and a ruling class that is very largely prevented from indulging in venality and corruption by the activities of a brutal, exuberant and uninhibited media.”