Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

MPs take revenge on Press freedom

The UK already has some of the strictest Press laws of any democracy, but Press freedom will be further chipped away under the proposed new regulations introduced in the wake of the Leveson inquiry.

The plans for a powerful new regulator, backed by legislation, gives the government the opportunity to stack the deck against the media. Little wonder that many powerful voices within the industry are condemning the proposals.

There can be little confidence in proposals which were drawn up by the three main political parties in late night meetings with the Hacked Off lobby group which wants stringent Press regulation party to the discussions.

But there was no room at the table for the very people whose industry is now being threatened. There is more than a whiff of revenge in the air for the media's role in exposing the MPs' expenses scandal.

Even the attitude of the parties when agreement was reached raises suspicions. Labour and the Lib Dems were jubilant that the Press was being brought to heel, while Mr Cameron, who was not present at the meeting, said Press freedom was being protected. Obviously both viewpoints could not be correct and the evidence points more towards the Labour/Lib Dem analysis than the prime minister's.

While there was no defence to the phone hacking scandals which provoked Lord Leveson's inquiry in the first place, it should be remembered that these excesses were largely confined to London-based mass circulation tabloids.

And, importantly, they could be, and are being, dealt with through the criminal law system. But the sins of the few are now being visited on the entire industry, even though Lord Leveson acknowledged that the vast majority of the regional Press – like this newspaper – behaves in an exemplary manner.

Among the insidious proposals agreed by the politicians is one allowing anyone with a complaint to make it completely free of charge. That inevitably will allow mischievous or frivolous complaints as well as genuine ones and gum up the work of the Press.

These complaints, frivolous or genuine, will have to be paid for by the Press at a time when newspapers are already facing tough times thanks to changing reading habits and new technology as well as falling advertising revenues.

However, the battle for Press freedom is not yet lost and the industry in general will fight these proposals. Several influential players in the media have already voiced their opposition to the plans and have no intention of rolling over.

And anyway, the plans will do little to curb the often scurrilous comments put on social networking sites which are way beyond even the wildest excesses of the mainstream media.

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