The Liberal Democrat election manifesto calls for action from Parliament if the press continues to refuse to sign up to a regulator which complies with the Leveson report.
The party also calls for greater protection for journalists: with a press freedom law, new public interest defences on criminal offences and giving journalists the right to argue in court against police requests to view their phone records.
The highlights include:
- Parliament to "act" if press does not sign up to “genuinely independent self-regulation”
- A US-style 'first amendment' to protect freedom of the press, as part of the system set out in Royal Charter on Press Regulation
- A public interest defence for journalists breaking phone-hacking and payments laws
- An extension of the Save Our Sources law, to give journalists opportunity to "address" court when police apply for their phone records
- The 'redirection' of local TV subsidies, "which have failed to contribute significantly to cultural life"
- Responsibility for BBC Trust and Board of Ofcom appointments to be taken away from ministers
- Leveson part two, investigating phone-hacking, to begin as soon as legally possible.
The Liberal Democrats said that if the press does not sign up to “genuinely independent self-regulation” within a year, “Parliament will need to act”.
The manifesto said that if, in the judgment of the Press Recognition Panel, this has not been achieved, Parliament should step in, “drawing on a range of options including the legislative steps necessary to ensure that independent self regulation is delivered”.
It said: “Where possible, we would seek to do this on the same cross-party basis that achieved the construction of the Leveson scheme by the Royal Charter.”
The party has also, as previously reported, committed to a US-style 'first amendment' protecting freedom of the press and introducing a public interest defence for journalists who have broken the law.
The Lib Dem manifesto said its 'first amendment' would “require the authorities and the courts to have regard to the importance of a free media in a democratic society”.
It said: “To nurture public interest journalism and protect the public from press abuse, we are committed to a system of accountability that is totally independent of both government and the newspaper industry, as set out in the Royal Charter on Press Regulation.”
Public interest defences
The manifesto also promises to give journalists a public interest defence to law breaches, including phone and computer-hacking, as well as bribery.
The manifesto said that the “threat of prosecution can have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to speak out against injustice and corruption”.
“To change this and promote investigative journalism, we will: Introduce statutory public interest defences for exceptional cases where journalists may need to break the law (such as RIPA, the 2010 Bribery Act, and the 1998 Computer Misuse Act) to expose corruption or other criminal acts.”
Save Our Sources
The Lib Dems have also said they want to take the Save Our Sources law – passed following a six-month Press Gazette campaign – further by giving journalists the right to "address" a court as a judge decides whether to grant public authorities access to their phone records “where this would not jeopardise the investigation”.
In September last year – after it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had secretly accessed the phone records of The Sun under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to find its sources – Press Gazette launched the Save Our Sources campaign, calling for a new law to prevent forces from using RIPA in this way without first getting judicial approval. This law has now been passed, though there is no requirement for journalists to be consulted.
The Lib Dems have pledged to: “Ensure judicial authorisation is required for the acquisition of communications data which might reveal journalists’ sources or other privileged communications, for any of the purposes allowed under RIPA; and allow journalists the opportunity to address the court before authorisation is granted, where this would not jeopardise the investigation.”
Like Labour, the Lib Dems have committed to act regulate media ownership and promote 'plurality'. Under Lib Dem plans, broadcast regulator Ofcom would be charged with conducting "reviews" on media plurality.
The manifesto said: “We will therefore reform the existing arrangements for safeguarding plurality in the media broadly in line with the recommendations of the 2014 Lords Communications Select Committee report.
“We will: Give lead responsibility to Ofcom and enable it to conduct reviews periodically, as well as when triggered by proposed mergers and acquisitions, and enable Ofcom to set down conditions to prevent the reach of any media company damaging the public interest.
“Ensure any conditions or requirements that Ofcom lays down following a plurality review can only be vetoed or interfered with by a Minister after a vote of both Houses of Parliament."
The Lib Dems – currently behind the Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP in terms of support, according to YouGov – have also committed to: "Redirecting the current subsidies for ‘local TV’, which have failed to contribute significantly to cultural life".
The manifesto said the party would: “Use a variety of measures to ensure that there is a vibrant local and ‘hyperlocal’ media to help inform citizens about their local area and their local politics, including: Redirecting the current subsidies for ‘local TV’, which have failed to contribute significantly to cultural life; Extending Ofcom’s community radio grant support to online hyperlocals, and allowing non-profit local media outlets to obtain charitable status where the public interest is being served.”
The party has also called for there to be a “post-legislative review” of the 2013 Defamation Act to “ensure the new provisions are reducing the chill of libel threats” in the UK.
The Lib Dems have pledged to introduce, following a consultation, changes to the Data Protection Act “to provide a fairer balance between personal privacy and the requirements of journalism, ensuring that the position of investigative journalists is safeguarded”. This was, it said, a recommendation of Leveson.
The party also pledged to “promote the independence of the media from political influence” by removing ministers from roles in appointing people to the BBC Trust and Board of Ofcom.
As well as backing a number of Leveson proposals, the manifesto also called for part two of the Leveson Inquiry “starts as soon as the criminal prosecutions in the hacking scandal are completed”. Part one of the judge-led inquiry concentrated on the “culture, practice and ethics of the press”. Part two would focus on phone-hacking.
The Lib Dems have also pledged to ensure that the Daniel Morgan Panel Inquiry, which is expected to touch on relationships between journalists and the police, to be “completed expeditiously”.