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Bishop slams press over self-regulation

07 December 2012

PA

Victims of intrusion: Gerry McCann (left) and Christopher Jefferies launch a Hacked Off petition outside the Houses of Parliament last Friday

Victims of intrusion: Gerry McCann (left) and Christopher Jefferies launch a Hacked Off petition outside the Houses of Parliament last Friday

THE press has lost the right to regulate itself, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, says.

Writing in the Church Times (Comment) in response to the Leveson report, published on Thursday of last week, Bishop James, who sits on the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, backs Lord Justice Leveson's calls for an independent body to regulate the press. The regulation "must protect citizens from unfair and damaging portrayal in the press, and give them a proper chance of redress.

"It is the helplessness which members of the general public feel when caught up in a major press story and are unfairly traduced, which is not a necessary consequence of press freedom but an abuse of it."

The Leveson report, An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, is the result of a 16-month review. It was set up after it was alleged that the mobile phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager, had been hacked by the News of the World. It recommends the creation of a new regulatory body, underpinned in statute, "which is truly independent of industry leaders and of Government and politicians". This body would not include any serving editor or politician.

Lord Justice Leveson said that he was not proposing statutory regulation, but a "statutory process to support press freedom . . . and guarantee for the public that this new body is independent and effective". Bishop James described this as a "finely nuanced recommendation", and said that "it takes a vivid imagination to think it readily opens the door for state control of the print media."

The Prime Minister, however, while welcoming the Leveson report, has voiced "serious concerns and misgivings" about enshrining the system in statute. "We would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land," he said after the report's publication. "We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press."

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said that his party would "unequivocally endorse both the principles set out, and his [Leveson's] central recommendations". This included support for "a truly independent regulation of the press, guaranteed by law". He paid tribute to "people who . . . suffered deep loss and grief, and then faced further trauma at the hands of sections of the press".

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, defying his coalition partner, also supported the system proposed in the report, which he argued could be done "in a proportionate and workable way. . . A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people, or free to abuse grieving families."

Cross-party talks were begun on the day the report was published, but some Conservative MPs remain critical of Mr Cameron's stance. Gary Streeter, who chairs Christians in Parliament, told The Sunday Telegraph that he was "dismayed" by the PM's response, and would "certainly back a future amendment for statutory underpinning of press regulation. I do not think the press is capable of self-regulation."

On Tuesday of last week, the Prime Minister warned newspaper editors that "the clock is ticking" after ordering them to produce "rapidly" a "tough, independent regulatory system" which must "absolutely" meet the requirements of the Leveson report, which include million-pound fines, proper investigation of complaints, and prominent apologies.

After the meeting, the editor of the Daily Mirror, Lloyd Embley, tweeted: "There is a firm belief that papers can deliver Leveson principles far more quickly without legislation - better for public and free speech."

Victims of press intrusion who gave evidence to the inquiry have criticised Mr Cameron's response. Last Friday, Gerry McCann described the coverage of his daughter Madeleine's disappearance as "unbelievably stressful", and suggested that politicians had "a bit of a chance to redeem themselves" in implementing the report in full.

The Leveson report describes the "gross libels" committed against the McCanns, who became "almost a piece of public property, where the public's right to know possessed few, if any, boundaries". Lord Leveson denounced the evidence of the editor of The Daily Express, Richard Desmond, to the inquiry, as revealing a "disturbing philosophical approach to the concepts of free speech and a free press. For him, at the end of the day, the issue was all about free speech and the threat of excessive regulation. On this approach, press standards and ethics were close to being irrelevant."

In a debate on the Leveson report in the House of Lords, on Thursday of last week, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, referred to his experience of chairing the Hillsborough independent panel ( News, 14 September).

"We became aware of the way that one news agency failed not just one national newspaper, but several, which between them became cumulatively responsible for misrepresenting the events of Hillsborough for a generation," he said. "Will the Government ensure that the regulatory body is sufficiently equipped to deal with complaints against such complex and enormous misrepresentation?"

Writing in The Sun on Sunday this week, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, welcomed the idea of an "independent self-regulatory body". Although his column had the title "I'm glad UK Press won't be shackled", he appeared to back the idea of statutory underpinning: "While the principles by which the body works should be regulated by Parliament, its individual decisions must be absolutely free from political interference."

He wrote in his column that his absence from it for the past three months was a reaction to the newspaper's decision to publish pictures of Prince Harry naked, and that he had spoken to the editor, Dominic Mohan, about this.

The director of the Church and Media Network, Andrew Graystone, said last Friday: "Without some statutory force nothing will change, and there will be no reason for parts of the press to change their behaviour. . . The only thing that is going to rescue us is the character of journalists and the choices they make."

A poll of 1733 people last Friday, reported in The Sunday Times, suggested that 58 per cent of the respondents would support "laws to encourage newspapers to join a new form of regulation", and that half believed that Mr Cameron was wrong to oppose such law.

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