These are dangerous times'

Press freedom at risk: court victories over Campbell and Flitcroft haven’t ended the threat to self-regulation

The press is living in dangerous times with self-regulation yet again under threat from politicians, Press Complaints Commission Guy Black has warned, writes Jon Slattery.

Black, speaking at the Newspaper Press Fund annual lunch, said that the industry had weathered the storm that followed the death of the Princess of Wales and the legislative battles over the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts.

But he claimed, “the signals started turning to danger” again last year when the Lord Chancellor announced that he intended to legislate to ban witness payments. “The issue itself is an unimportant one,” Black said. “Newspapers seldom buy up witnesses unless there is good reason. Yet the principle was one of vast importance. The Lord Chancellor was proposing the first set of statutory controls specific to the press since the abolition of the Licensing Act at the end of the 17th century.”

Although the Lord Chancellor was persuaded to change his mind “a more frosty Government attitude had been cast,” he said.

Then came the newspaper merger provisions of the communications bill, which give Ofcom important powers of control which could include privacy and accuracy, currently the preserve of the PCC.

“And then there is the real threat that the bill might be amended in the House of Lords to bring the PCC directly under the control of Ofcom.”

Black warns: “It would not simply be statutory control by the back door –it would be state control bashing the front door down.”

The Government has pledged to reverse any amendment in the Lords but Black told his audience this would be a controversial process.

“There are few friends of press freedom and the PCC in Parliament –and not many will rush to our aid. What’s more, these important debates in the Lords will be going on at a time when the select committee inquiry into privacy and media intrusion reports in May or June. Which is why that inquiry is possibly so important and its timing possibly so apparently cynical. For if the select committee does what any disinterested observer might predict, and recommends the PCC should be placed under Ofcom, then the temperature of debates in the Lords and Commons will soar. These are very dangerous times.”

Jon Slattery

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