Tories back press self-regulation

Conservative leader David Cameron has pledged his support to self-regulation of the press in his first major interview about the issues affecting journalists.

He spoke to Press Gazette this week on the eve of the British Press Awards – where he presented prizes including the premier awards of newspaper of the year, journalist of the year and international journalist of the year.

He said: ‘We’ve no plans to change self-regulation. I think the PCC has settled down and the system is now working better than it once did. But that’s not to say that there isn’t an on-going need to make sure the press acts responsibly. 

‘What I wouldn’t want to do is discourage the genuine campaigns and stories that the British press is famous for – and which end up contributing to our democracy and to a sense of responsibility in public life.”

Cameron suggested that he is supportive of another cause dear to the hearts of most journalists – the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to include private bodies carrying out Government functions. The Government is currently considering proposals to do this – as set out by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in October.

Cameron said: ‘We have expressed concern that some public organisations – like Northern Rock and unelected regional assemblies – are currently exempt from the Act. 

‘It is already the case that many private companies that carry out public functions are covered by the Environmental Information Regulations, so there is a case for such bodies also being covered by the Freedom of Information Act. 

‘However, we need to recognise there is a cost to this, and any such extensions need to be carefully considered.  We would not support the extension of FoI to every private firm that merely traded with the public sector or carried out contracts for them.”

Cameron has been leader of the Conservatives since December 2005 and, on current poll performances, looks to have a good chance of winning the next general election.

With British regional and national newspapers currently under more economic pressure than ever, Press Gazette asked him whether a Conservative government would consider intervention to safeguard the vital democratic and society building role they play.

He said: ‘I can’t see a role for such intervention – not least because newspapers are themselves adapting to the new climate in which they find themselves. For example, many national newspapers now make extensive use of new technologies to reach audiences with blogs, podcasts and online discussion forums.”

But he added: ‘I agree with what you say about their role in our free society though. National, regional and local papers are absolutely crucial in holding people to account, spreading information and enhancing our democracy. You only have to look at places where the press isn’t free and vibrant to see that.”

When asked about the threat posed to commercial TV news post digital switch-over – to be completed by 2012 – Cameron answered: ‘We said recently that we would consider whether organisations other than the BBC should be allowed to bid for a proportion of the licence fee, to support areas like current affairs. However, we need to do that in a way that doesn’t distort the commercial TV market.”

He added: ‘In our proposals, we also highlighted the importance of specifically local television. It’s an area that for too long has often been overlooked by policy makers. I want to see local output play a bigger part as digital television evolves. That’s crucial if we are serious about getting power back to local communities.”

On the subject of Conditional Fee Agreements in libel cases, which are widely seen as being used to hold news organisations to ransom and are the subject of a Press Gazette campaign, Cameron said: ‘The CFA reforms were intended to improve access to justice.  I am aware of concerns from some sections of the media that this may have led to a chilling effect on legitimate journalism. 

‘The objective must be fairness and access to justice for all, and if further ideas come forward as to how the system can be reformed to create a level playing field, then we will consider them with care.

‘However, we don’t have any plans to put forward proposals of our own at this moment.”

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