The Conservative MP who chaired Westminster’s hacking inquiry has said that jailing journalists in the UK could send the wrong message abroad.
Speaking at a Council of Europe conference on press regulation yesterday, John Whittingdale said that senior figures at News International are “likely to go to prison” if convicted of criminal offences over their part in the phone-hacking scandal.
But he said that Britain needed to be clear that journalists would be jailed because of their criminal activity and “not for any political reason”.
Whittingdale said: “It is a real fear for me that the fact that journalists in Britain are likely to go to prison may send a message to other countries that it is alright to lock up journalists.”
He added: “What happened in Britain, as is now slowly becoming clear, is that a number of journalists plotted to obtain stories and did so by breaking the law.
“They are being prosecuted not for any political reason…. they are being prosecuted for breaking the law and that is right.
“What would worry me greatly if any country around the world would say we don’t like what that journalist is printing, we are going to put him in prison and it is fine because they are doing it Britain as well.
“That is something we are going to need to be very clear about why journalists are being prosecuted.”
Earlier in the day, Whittingdale had chaired a session of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, during which he heard evidence from local newspaper groups warning of the danger of increased regulation.
He told the conference: “What you don't want to do is impose regulations which actually just add to the pressure on newspapers and drive down business.
"What we are seeking to do is to find is a system which the press accepts but equally goes far enough to satisfy those who have been abused by the press.”
However, he added that the squabbling over press regulation may prove to be “yesterday’s debate”, having heard evidence that printed newspapers may not exist “in five or ten years”.