'Repercussions' to press curbs
There is growing evidence that moves to more heavily regulate Britain's newspaper industry are "being used by repressive regimes around the world to excuse their own practices towards the press", a report has claimed.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) warns that "even the suggestion of a decline in Britain's regard for press freedom risks serious repercussions in other parts of the world".
Its report, compiled following a two-day press "freedom fact-finding and advocacy mission" of international editors to the UK in January, concludes that any regulatory system of the press should have the support of the industry, unlike the royal charter on press regulation which has largely been rejected by editors.
"The exclusion of the industry in the final drafting process of the royal charter was a major error," the report criticises.
"The royal charter system - used as an example or transposed elsewhere to countries lacking the United Kingdom's historic commitment to human rights - risks an open invitation for abuse in other parts of the world."
The 42-page document also condemns "UK Government interference" towards the Guardian following its publication of US surveillance stories based on leaked information from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
David Miranda, the partner of Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald who was behind the stories, was held for nine hours at Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws last August while the Government forced the newspaper to destroy hard drives containing the files, a measure described in the report as "surreal".
The report concludes: "There is growing evidence, reported by the Wan-Ifra membership, that the British approach - either in terms of regulation, or in the misuse of terrorism and national security legislation - is being used by repressive regimes to excuse their own practices towards the press.
"The British Government must take steps to ensure that it upholds the high standards of press freedom expected from a leading democracy with a long tradition of guarding these values. It should reiterate clearly to the international community that it continues to support a free and independent press, and back these statements with discernable action at home to support rather than punish journalism."
Today's report acknowledges the phone-hacking scandal "caused a severe breach in confidence between the public and the press that needs to be addressed" but adds that it is important " not to convolute the hacking scandal with the current regulatory debate".
"The speed of implementation of the royal charter proposal, coupled with the lack of legislative scrutiny, parliamentary vote or public consultation, has undoubtedly contributed to a general lack of understanding around the issues. The entire negotiation process in the build-up to a deal on a new system for regulation should have been more transparent," it says.
The report, which notes that the Leveson Inquiry into press standards "identified a litany of failure" in the current regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), adds that there has since been a "real lack of public discussion about the implications of the issues raised" by the inquiry and how they relate to freedom of expression.
"The ongoing polarisation between the different sides in the debate has not helped," it adds.
The report, Press Freedom In The UK, says the British Government should "step back from any further involvement" in the issue.
The royal charter on press regulation was sealed by the Queen in October, nearly a year on from the publication of the Leveson Inquiry's findings but editors have so far refused to sign up.
Instead industry leaders have come up with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), with more than 90% of publications in the UK said to be in alignment.
Commenting on the report's findings, Wan-Ifra chief executive Vincent Peyregne said: "The lack of any real guarantees enshrining press freedom continues to expose journalism in the United Kingdom to great uncertainty, as there is nothing benign in a system that invites even the possibility of tighter restrictions on freedom of expression.
"If the UK Government feels it is acceptable, in the name of national security, to dictate what is in the public interest, and given the UK's continued influence over developing nations where media are essential for the spread of democratic values, the future of a free, independent press that can hold power to account is under threat worldwide."
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the report was a "sad and damning indictment of the political classes in a country that prides itself on being the mother of modern democracies".
He added: "No wonder journalists across the world are concerned that, Britain, which lectures other countries about press freedom, has after 300 years taken a retrograde step in its own backyard.
"The report is quite right to tell the Government it should keep out of regulation of the press urging it to offer full support to the industry's own efforts to implement its own credible framework for self-regulation.
"At a time so many countries continue to try to restrict the media no wonder the report says the British Government must take steps to ensure that it upholds the high standards of press freedom expected from a leading democracy with a long tradition of guarding these values.
"We hope ministers will take note of the call to support a free and independent press internationally and back these statements with discernible action at home to support rather than punish journalism."
Hacked Off director Professor Brian Cathcart said: " We are disappointed but not surprised that this group has failed to see past the cynical scaremongering by the big British newspapers about the Royal Charter.
"We are disappointed because Hacked Off gave them the opportunity to hear from victims of press abuse about the need for change in Britain and the very modest nature of the changes that have been adopted - but they have ignored this entirely in their report.
"We are not surprised because this is, after all, a trade body of which the big British newspaper groups are leading members and because Wan-Ifra showed that its mind was made up even before the mission arrived."
"Unlike this Wan-Ifra report, the Royal Charter scheme is the result of a proper, legal fact-finding inquiry held in public and led by a senior judge - Sir Brian Leveson. The Charter poses no threat whatever to freedom of expression in Britain but it will challenge the freedom of newspapers to bully, lie and intrude with impunity.
"If autocrats in repressive regimes are using events here to try and justify harsh measures in their own countries, then bodies such as Wan-Ifra should be exposing the misrepresentation of the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter in the press, not contributing to it."
Christopher Jefferies, who was wrongly linked to the murder of Joanna Yeates by news reports in 2010, said: "It is disappointing that a delegation that supposedly came to find facts has failed so badly to understand what has happened. Our institutions have acted very cautiously to ensure that, while necessary steps are taken to protect ordinary people from abuse by newspapers, freedom of expression is also safeguarded.
"Almost everybody in this country, with the exception of the big national newspaper companies, understands this. The delegation should have listened more carefully."