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NS Director Highlights Dangers of Statutory Press Controls to Freedom of Expression

In the run-up to publication of the Leveson Report, Newspaper Society director David Newell has challenged those advocating a system of press regulation underpinned by statute, saying they have singularly failed to address the fundamental issue at the heart of every citizen’s freedom of expression. They also risk inflicting “mass punishment” on Britain’s thousands of newspapers and magazines because of the behaviour of less than one per cent.

In an article headed ‘Your Freedom to Publish’, hesays the focus of the Leveson Inquiry had been on “the behaviour of less than one per cent of those newspapers and magazines and the journalists which work for them… Many of the advocates of statutory press controls and structures have shown scant interest in the fundamental implications of any legal changes for the ninety-nine per cent plus and their inevitable impact on the vital roles which they perform.”

There were civil and criminal laws already in existence to prevent the behaviour of “a minute proportion of those that work in the media” which has been the focus of the Leveson Inquiry. There was no evidence to suggest “significant media-related activity which is not covered by those laws which should be covered by yet more laws.”

Newell says: “However softly focused or innocuous-sounding, a statute-based media standards body would impact on everyone’s freedom of expression and everyone’s freedom to enjoy the words and images which result from that freedom...”

“It would give Parliament the responsibility for constructing new controls over the publication of some written and spoken words and images but not of others… It is about listing and defining all media and publishing outlets and determining which should be subject to special controls and which should not… It is about re-imposing on some media a licensing regime which was abolished in the 17 Century as an essential part of the UK’s democratic development which is underpinned by the freedom to publish.”

Parliament would need to decide which publications and their contributors would continue to be regulated exclusively by the general law of the land and which would be regulated by a special media regime. “The proponents of a statutory regime have failed to address the fundamental issue,” says Newell. “Can such a line be drawn on a rational, sustainable, fair and workable basis which does not impact fundamentally on freedom of expression and the freedom to publish…?

“Put simply, the freedom to publish in the UK is rightly exercised by all sorts of individuals and organisations for a myriad of motivations and all having a choice as to their mode of publication. This helps guarantee wider democratic freedoms. To target for inclusion in a special statutory regime all those that exercise those freedoms purely on the basis that they have chosen to do so on newsprint or magazine grade paper cannot be justifiedon any fair evaluation of the evidence presented to Leveson.”

The NS is the voice of Britain’s local media, the UK’s most trusted medium. It represents 1,100 newspapers, 1,700 websites and other print, digital and broadcast channels.