A leading Tory MP and former journalist has called for a UK Bill of Rights to secure press freedom to replace the Government’s planned Royal Charter backed regulator.
Richard Drax MP for Dorset South secured a debate in Westminster Hall on the future of press regulation. He spent 17 years working as a journalist before entering Parliament.
Drax told assembled MPs that he was deeply concerned by the Government’s Royal Charter claiming that this will lead to increased interference in the freedom of the press.
He said such is the level of concern that the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers are set to visit Britain next month.
“We are in poor company. Other countries that the team have visited include such bastions of free speech as Ethiopia, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. One really could not make it up.
“Free speech organisations around the world are asking us to rethink. They fear that the changes set a dangerous precedent for non-democratic regimes, and our Foreign Secretary agrees.
“Why, then, are we going down this road? True democracies erect a barrier between Government and the press for good reasons, and there is no excuse for dismantling it. It is claimed that the royal charter protects press freedom because it can be changed only by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but that is illusory.
“Such a majority rule was enacted in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, but a simple amendment would allow a future Government to sweep it away at any time with a single-vote majority. Even the two-thirds safeguard is misleading, especially when we consider how an emotive topic such as Syria nearly persuaded the House to take the country to war.
“Large majorities are not as rare as the charter would have us believe, especially if the cause is deemed to be right, whether it be going to war or cracking down on the press.”
Drax claimed Lord Leveson called for “voluntary, independent self-regulation” of the press.
He said: “The deal stitched up at 2am over a pizza by a group of politicians and the celebrity lobby group Hacked Off was far from voluntary, independent or self-regulating. The newspapers and magazines that it covers include the 1,000-plus regional and local papers that were exonerated by the Leveson inquiry, none of which was told that the meeting was taking place.
“There was no parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with the industry or the public on the terms of the state-sponsored royal charter, even though there are compelling constitutional questions about the imposition of a royal charter on an industry that does not want one.”
Drax argued that the Government should allow the Independent Press Standards Organisation time to prove itself as an effective press regulator before continuing with their own regulator.
He said the IPSO regulations are “far from being toothless” and would bring “swift and fair redress” to those wronged by newspapers.
He added: “Perhaps one day we can create a British Bill of Rights that incorporates freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which would give us the same protection as the American First Amendment. Despite the fact that all three parties are agreed on the royal charter, I hope that self-regulation will prevail. It is in all our interests.”