British MPs warn tough new laws will stifle press freedom

28th November 2012, Comments 0 comments

Politicians from Britain's leading parties on Wednesday warned that state regulation of the country's newspapers would present the biggest threat to press freedom for 300 years.

But a new poll showed that 60 percent of the public favour implementing the recommendations of judge Brian Leveson's inquiry into media ethics and standards, due to be announced Thursday, even if the findings extend to imposing new laws.

In a letter published in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph and Guardian newspapers, 86 politicians urged Prime Minister David Cameron not to introduce a statutory framework, even if Leveson's report calls for it.

Senior Conservatives including former defence secretary Liam Fox, former Europe minister David Davis and former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth all signed the letter.

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

"No form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing -- abolished in Britain in 1695," said the letter.

"State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution," it added.

The letter has exposed a rift within the Conservative party -- the coalition government's senior partner -- after 42 of its MPs wrote an earlier letter calling for strong new laws.

Meanwhile, a poll published in Wednesday's Guardian newspaper found strong public support for tough legislation.

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

The British press is anxiously awaiting Thursday's results, but the report will also represent a dilemma for Cameron.

The prime minister set up the judge-led Leveson Inquiry last year in response to revelations that Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had hacked the phone messages of a murdered schoolgirl and dozens of public figures.

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

Leveson's recommendations could usher in a radical change to the way media organisations operate in Britain.

The British press is currently self-regulated, overseen by the Press Complaints Commission, which is staffed by editors.

Cameron 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.

At the same time, newspaper editors have warned that state regulation of the press would limit press freedom and hamper investigative reporting.

© 2012 AFP

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