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The Freedom Association held a panel discussion last night (25th February) on the proposals set out by the Letwin Plan, which is the Conservatives’ proposal in response to the Leveson Inquiry Report published last year. The purpose of the discussion was to examine the implications of the Letwin Plan on media behaviour and Freedom of the Press in this country. The panellists were John Whittingdale OBE MP, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, George Eustice MP, and blogger Harry Cole of the political blog Guido Fawkes. The discussion was chaired by The Freedom Association’s Deputy Director, Dia Chakravarty. With standing room only, the event took place in a Committee Room at the House of Commons.
George Eustice started the discussion arguing broadly in favour of regulation of the press and stressing the need for media accountability. He recognised the changing nature of the media and what he described as media convergence – between broadsheets and internet newspapers like the Huffington Post, for example. Mr Eustice argued that the culture of co-operation between the police and the media is something that should change and this should be done in a more stable regulatory environment. The solution he supports is an independent regulator which provides that stability, acting as a press alternative to OFCOM and which uses both carrot and stick to provide that regulatory framework. He added that OFCOM is an effective regulator, which does not necessarily prevent the broadcast media from taking on a role of scrutiny. For example, it was broadcast media such as ITV that broke the Jimmy Savile story. Mr Eustice also called for action sooner rather than later, saying that time was an important factor to consider in order to prevent inertia. Mr Eustice saw the Letwin Plan as something that isn’t “exactly what anyone wants but something that everyone could live with”.
Harry Cole argued next in favour of press freedom and against the proposed regulations, stating that there was only ‘a cigarette paper’ between the kind of press regulation proposed by the Leveson Report and by the Letwin Plan. He also felt that not signing up to the Recognition Body is not a real option as this could be seen as a seal of credibility (for all mainstream press, at least), with those choosing not to sign up to this being deemed as somehow less credible. He noted that credibility in this sense was itself problematic, as it would derive ultimately from the government-linked Royal Charter. He pointed out that OFCOM is a quango and that such organisations have questionable freedom from government interference. Mr Cole provided the example of a comment he had made about the Labour MP Tom Watson in an article which caused Mr Watson to call several editors, including Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, of which Mr Cole is a contributor, demanding that Mr Cole be fired. The regulatory framework proposed both by the Leveson Report and the Letwin Plan would give MPs such as Mr Watson more confidence to make such demands and these were a serious threat to press independence and freedoms. Recently disgraced MPs such as Chris Huhne would also be less accountable to press scrutiny because of a fear of attracting the wrath of over zealous regulators. The Royal Charter proposed under the Letwin Plan was something that Mr Cole raised concerns with, pointing out that in order to change the Charter a majority of two thirds of parliament would be needed and that this did not take into account the potential composition of parliament ten or twenty years into the future. All parties agreed that the abuses that the press has been involved with and that have been exposed in recent years are appalling, but Mr Cole pointed out that tabloids, despite sometimes being of questionable taste, keep the broadsheets and serious media afloat with papers like The Sun subsidising papers like The Times. His greatest worry was this kind of press regulation would be damaging to our democracy as press independence from the state is one of the rare forms of separation of power we have in this country.
John Whittingdale started by saying that recent press abuses mean that something beyond the existing system of self-regulation by the media is needed to prevent such abuses repeating themselves. He added, however, that people ought to be fearful of politicians being brought into what goes into the press and that in a democratic society a free press was something that should be cherished and not abandoned. Mr Whittingdale said that OFCOM was never going to be a valid option for the role of the regulator as OFCOM would fail the Leveson test of independence from the state. Any kind of statutory regulation would be taking things too far, posing a threat to Press Freedom. The Letwin Plan does not propose statutory regulation of the press and is therefore different from the Leveson recommendations.
During the Q&A session after the speeches a potential flaw in the proposed regulations was raised which was that if the proposed regulations proved restrictive, organisations could move their base of operations abroad. Harry Cole’s Guido Fawkes blog, for example, is already spread internationally with servers in California and the Caribbean. Important questions around police inaction and the possibility of the introduction of a specific small claims court prodecure were also raised by the audience.