UK lawmakers warn against muzzling press

2012-11-28 15:00

London - More than 80 British lawmakers warned on Wednesday against state regulation of newspapers as Prime Minister David Cameron prepared to receive a key report into the phone-hacking scandal.

The cross-party group of legislators said in a letter published in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph newspapers that introducing laws to govern Britain's raucous press would be the biggest blow to media freedom in 300 years.

But a new poll showed that 60% of the public favour implementing the recommendations of judge Brian Leveson's inquiry into media ethics, due to be announced on Thursday, even if Leveson calls for statutory regulation.

Cameron ordered the inquiry after the discovery of widespread illegal hacking of voicemails at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the Australian-born tycoon closed in July 2011.

"As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning," said the letter, signed by members of both houses of parliament.

It added: "No form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing - abolished in Britain in 1695."

Campaigners misrepresented by letter

London 2012 Olympics chief Sebastian Coe was among the senior Conservatives who signed the letter, as well as former defence minister Liam Fox and former Europe minister David Davis.

One MP from the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, John Hemming, also signed along with several Labour lawmakers, including Kate Hoey, a former sports minister, and Frank Field, a former welfare minister.

But Hollywood actor Hugh Grant, who has spoken out on behalf of victims of phone hacking, said the letter had misrepresented what campaigners wanted.

"What people are campaigning for is an end to newspapers being able to regulate themselves, marking their own homework," the Four Weddings and a Funeral star told BBC television.

The British press is currently self-regulated through the widely criticised Press Complaints Commission.

Grant added: "No one is arguing for statutory regulation that I have ever heard of. They are arguing for independent regulation underpinned by statute, which is a very, very different beast."

Party divisions

Cameron is due to receive a copy of the report on Wednesday, 24 hours before Leveson makes the findings public.

He is under no obligation to implement Leveson's recommendations, but having taken the decision to set up the inquiry he is likely to face heavy criticism if he takes no action.

On the other hand Cameron also faces deep divisions in his own party and even a possible rebellion within the Conservative ranks if he agrees to any statutory regulation of newspapers.

Forty-two MPs from the centre-right Conservatives - who are the senior partners in a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats - wrote an earlier letter calling for strong new press laws.

A poll published in Wednesday's Guardian found strong public support for tough legislation.

According to the YouGov poll taken on behalf of the Media Standards Trust, 79% were in favour of an independent press regulator established by law while 60% believed Cameron should implement Leveson's recommendations.

Three linked investigations

Over eight months of hearings overseen by one of Britain's most senior judges, the Leveson inquiry has looked in detail at the methods of the British tabloids, which used to pride themselves on their aggressive tactics.

Cameron set up the inquiry after it emerged that the now-defunct News of the World had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl, as well as targeting dozens of crime victims, celebrities and politicians.

British police have launched three linked investigations into phone hacking, bribery of officials and breaches of privacy under which there have been more than 90 arrests.

Cameron's former spokesperson Andy Coulson and ex-Murdoch aide Rebekah Brooks have both been charged with phone hacking and bribery.