Ian Murray: You cannot have degrees of freedom, either we have a free press in this country or we don't

I’ve come to the conclusion they just don’t get it.

Wanting always to err on the side of believing – hoping – politicians genuinely have the best interest of us all at heart, even the press, I can see how they could come to believe the Royal Charter they have created to oversee press regulation is not statutory interference in a free press at all.

However, as with the so-called concessions Hampshire MPand Culture Secretary Maria Miller unveiled when announcing an agreement had been reached by the three main parties in Parliament on Friday, this is an illusion and they are fooling themselves.

As I told the PM programme on Radio 4 on Saturday during a debate on the issue, you cannot have degrees of freedom. Either we have a free press in this country or we don’t.

A charter established by politicians, to the rules dictated by politicians – and their friends in the pressure group Hacked Off – and a regulatory body overseen by politician appointees, is far from free. This would be statutory control by the state but under a veneer of independence, an imaginary hands-off by politicians who could take the charter back to Parliament and vote to tighten their grip at any time.

The apparent concessions to the regional press could be seen as an attempt to buy us off and leave the fight. However, I will accept these as a well-meaning attempt to address genuine practical concerns the 1,100 local newspapers have over the sheer cost of administering the new regulations andthe threat to some publications’ very existence. But these are practical considerations to be taken in addition to the overall objections from the industry as a whole towards the removal of the principle of a free press.

The Culture Secretary and others have made a grave, and I would say frankly insulting mistake in assuming that regional editors see this matter solely in terms of pounds and pence. The principle of a free press is as important to the people of Southampton – or Portsmouth or Oxford or Glasgow – as it is for those who inhabit the corridors of Westminster.

It is we who police local democracy, we who hold local organisations and big business to account, we in the regional press who tackle at grass roots level issues of poverty, welfare, health, education, social services and public administration. It is every bit as vital we are free from political interference to carry out our role as it is the national papers to carry out theirs.

The principle of a free press was founded 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and the creation of that country’s constitution which upholds the right to free speech, and a century before the French Revolution and its liberties. We have led the way and the world watches.

Those original hard-won freedoms were not for a national press which did not exist at the time, but for emerging local papers, be they in the capital or any of the nation’s towns and cities. Local editors then fought just as passionately for the right to be free of political control as they should and are doing now.

Ian Murray is editor of the Southern Daily Echo and vice president of the Society of Editors. You can read his blog here.

The final wording of Parliament's Royal Charter on press regulation was published on Friday and sought to address regional press concerns about a compulsory libel arbtration system leading to a flood of new legal claims. The charter allows publishes to charge a fee for libel claimants seeking to use the service and provides regional titles with the opportunity to opt out of the system of it proves to be too expensive.

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