Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Press freedom must be cherished

As feared by newspapers, the Privy Council has approved the Royal Charter on Press regulation. So a system of regulation hatched up over pizzas by politicians who had an axe to grind and a pressure group which is not representative of the general public is now to control what the media can do. It offers too much control to politicians and that can never be a good thing, as political whims can swiftly become policy.

For those who say that the media is able to run out of control, they should look at the court case currently under way involving alleged telephone hacking.

That proves that there are robust processes in place already to deal with any newspaper or media outlet which breaches existing laws.

No-one in the media has ever suggested that the Press should be outside the law or be subject to different rules than society in general, but it must be allowed to carry out robust investigative journalism which is in the public interest, but which could now be curbed because of the new system of regulation.

The Press has put forward a new system of self-regulation, which would be a much beefed-up regulator and which many feel would be the toughest in the western world.

That would have satisfied most of what Lord Leveson wanted in his report, but instead, a different system with potential political interference has been introduced.

It can impose punitive financial penalties on newspapers, up to £1m, and if newspapers don't join the new system, under a slyly introduced bill earlier this year, they could face exemplary damages and would have to pay claimants' costs even if they win their case.

Those are unacceptable preconditions which would not be tolerated in other western democracies and certainly not in the United States, where they would be seen as unconstitutional.

They should not be acceptable here. While Press excesses where they occur – and that is rarer than it is often portrayed – are to be deplored.

The freedom of the Press must be cherished at all costs.

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