The Manchester Evening News has a regular slot in the paper where they get a number of MPs to write an opinion column on topical issues of their choice. This week just happened to be my turn, so I thought that I would comment on the eagerly awaited Leveson report, due out on Thursday.
For those of you who don’t know, the MEN is owned by Trinity Mirror, and along with other major newspaper groups, are totally opposed to independent regulation of the press. They claim that regulation will be the end of freedom of expression. How ironic then, that the MEN has refused to print my personal views in an opinion column. So much for their commitment to freedom of expression. Judge for yourself as to whether my opinion was so subversive as to warrant being censored.
John Leech “Viewpoint” column on the Leveson Report
This Thursday, the long awaited Lord Justice Leveson report is published into media regulation. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I want to make clear that we will support any reasonable recommendations he makes that are proportionate and workable.
However, we are clear that a balance needs to be struck – We need to change the way in which media accountability works, but we should also defend the principle of a challenging, independent and free press as an integral part of democracy.
In all the rows between Labour and Tories about who was closer to Rupert Murdoch, the central reason for the report has been forgotten.
It is because journalists systematically broke the law, and tapped the phones of celebs, politicians and normal people to find stories.
Do you remember how you felt when you heard that journalists had hacked the phone of Milly Dowler? I know I felt disgust and contempt.
We need a system in place that allows us to look at the parents of Milly Dowler in the eye and say that we have done all we can to stop what happened to them happening to anyone else.
Leveson happened because journalists, by their actions, showed that voluntary self-regulation, administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), simply does not work.
The last three Prime Ministers have had relationships with some members of the press that goes well beyond a professional relationship all politicians need with journalists. Tony Blair jetted off to meet Murdoch in Australia, and was Godfather to his son.
Gordon Brown altered the Data Protection Act following press lobbying, and the current PM, by appointing Coulson and being close friend with Brooks, both now charged by the police, has made similar mistakes.
Both the Tories and Labour recognise that the Liberal Democrats did not have the same relationship with the Press as them.
In June, David Cameron said, “Let me be frank: we are talking about the relationships that Conservative politicians and Labour politicians have had over the past 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did not have that relationship.”
And Labour peer David Puttman added, “In truth, the only party that has consistently taken a thoughtfully independent position on this issue has been the Liberal Democrats.”
In 2003, we argued that the PCC be reformed into a genuinely independent body, with compulsory membership and at arm’s length from editors. These are exactly the same reforms being talked about today.
In 2009, we referred the Metropolitan Police Inquiry into phone-hacking to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, saying that the Met could not act as judge and jury in their own trial.
In 2010, Chris Huhne MP called for a full judicial inquiry into phone hacking. We were the first political party to do this.
It was thanks to Lib Dem Minister Tom McNally that the Communications Bill contained the plurality test that prevented News International taking full control of BSkyB in 2011.
And at our 2011 Conference, we passed a motion on phone hacking which again called for the overhaul of the PCC and stronger ‘fit and proper persons’ rules.
Nick Clegg has made the Lib Dem view clear. Giving evidence to Leveson, he said,
Maintaining the freedom and diversity of the press is critical. As a liberal, it is my deepest instinct to preserve a press that is fiercely independent, and protected from political interference. Any proposals from government or this inquiry must have this principle at its heart.
We wait to see what Lord Leveson recommends on Thursday.