Conservative leader Michael Howard has said it is vital that journalists are not cowed following the savaging of the BBC in the Hutton Report.
Howard also called for independent regulation of the corporation and praised its former chairman and director general.
He said: “I pay tribute to Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, both for the way in which overall they carried out their responsibilities as chairman and director general respectively, notwithstanding the criticisms contained in the Hutton Report, and for their honourable resignations.
“We have long argued that the Government cannot properly both run and regulate the BBC and that, particularly in relation to its complaints procedures, there should be a role for Ofcom. We believe that the case for independent regulation has never been stronger.”
In defence of a free press, he said: “When all is said and done, no one should underestimate the vital nature of the role of the free press, broadcast and print, in sustaining a vigorous and healthy democracy. If they were ever to become Government puppets, our democracy would be truly in peril.”
Howard, who was speaking at the Kent Journalist of the Year Awards at the Shepherd Neame Brewery in Faversham, added: “It is vital that you are not cowed, and that you carry out your responsibilities fairly but rigorously. One of your roles is indeed to challenge politicians.
Of course allegations of a lack of integrity should not become routine. Of course it should normally be possible to discuss the merits of policies or conduct without impugning anyone’s integrity. But there will be occasions when such allegations are appropriate. And when they are, you must be free to make them and must not be intimidated from doing so.
“And let us be absolutely clear that these issues are not just ones that impact on the broadcast media. They are issues for all journalists, in whatever medium they work.”
The Conservative leader also praised the local press. He said: “Let me in particular pay tribute to our regional and local press, who play such a crucial role in keeping local democracy vigorous and healthy. Your campaigning for local causes is very effective and you are not only the best read, but most widely trusted of all the media.”