Statutory regulation a ‘very slippery slope’ for Britain’s free press

With the Leveson Inquiry findings imminent, Peter Preston, a former editor of the Guardian, has claimed that statutory regulation of the press would be a ‘very slippery slope’ to political interference in Britain’s media.

newspaper-photo-1Speaking at a special lecture at St John’s College in Durham, Mr Preston expressed fears of the consequences for the British press if it were to become subject to a regulatory body backed by statute.

He claimed that such regulation would endanger free editorial judgement and would give politicians the power to change any regulatory code in future to suit their own interests.

Instead he advocated an ‘upgraded’ Press and Complaints Commission (PCC), a body he helped to set-up, which would have an investigatory arm, a whistle-blowing hotline and powers to impose fines for transgressions. Mr Preston said that such an idea had wide support in the British press.

Mr Preston illustrated his point with reference to the BBC, arguing that too strong legal oversight could lead to the suppression of important news stories.

He cited the MPs’ expenses scandal and the phone-hacking scandal, the two biggest public interest stories of recent times, as instances where the BBC could not have broken either story because each required paying a middleman a fee to obtain crucial, confidential information. Mr Preston feared that similar future journalistic discoveries would be endangered in a world of overbearing statutory regulation.

Mr Preston also used the lecture to question the proportionality of the Leveson Inquiry. Without doubting the gravity of the offence of phone-hacking, he wondered whether an 18 month inquiry into the practice and wider press culture was an appropriate reaction to the situation.

In the same vein he criticised what he saw as a culture of knee-jerk responses to crises in British public life. He said that greater use of common sense, and not the passing of regulatory laws, was the solution to restoring faith in Britain’s public institutions.

And giving his prediction on the expected fallout of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, Mr Preston said that politicians would most likely ‘thrash out a consensus’ on reform before presenting it to the press for negotiation. He predicted that this consensus would not match exactly the Leveson formula but the politicians would eventually ‘cook up’ something that ‘may or may not be good.’

Lord Justice Leveson is expected to present his findings in the coming days. Further information on the Leveson Inquiry can be found at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk.

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 20th November 2012 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=30324

Speaking out for the disabled

Baroness Masham of Ilan, a champion of disability causes and health reform in the House of Lords, gave a moving address to students from Durham’s political societies last week.

Baroness-Masham-photo-1Speaking passionately about the issues facing the disabled in Britain today, Baroness Masham praised the positive reforms of the Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act of 1970 but said that much remained to be done to tackle discrimination against disability in society.

She identified a lack of assistance on public transport and financial cuts to tailored employment programmes as just two of the key areas in which the disabled suffered in society today.

Baroness Masham also described the importance of constantly raising awareness about the difficulties faced by disabled people, something she does tirelessly in the Lords and her charity work, and she encouraged all the students present to do the same.

As an example of positive change, she cited this summer’s Paralympics as a triumph in changing societal perceptions of disability and she hoped the trend would continue.

In a question and answer session after the address the cross-bench peer then shared her insights into some of the big issues currently dominating British politics.

On House of Lords reform, Baroness Masham agreed that the current Lords was too large and that many peers did very little work. But she also said it was important to have a wide range of interests represented in Parliament which was helped by a sizeable second chamber.

Concerning reforms to the NHS, she expressed fears about the effects of closing some A + E departments and the prospect of a return of a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. Baroness Masham also admitted that working on amending the government’s new health legislation had been one of her major tasks this year.

She spoke in favour of Britain’s current assisted suicide laws, saying that the potential danger of economic pressures encouraging the vulnerable elderly to end their lives early made any change in the law unadvisable. She also praised Britain’s standing in the EU but agreed that Britain’s financial contribution to Europe shouldn’t increase.

Jonathan Duell, political officer of the Durham University Conservative Association (DUCA) and one of the organisers of the address, said: ’The DUCA team was delighted when Baroness Masham accepted our invitation to come and speak at Durham, but we didn’t anticipate the full extent of her unparalleled insight into the realm of the politics of disability.

‘She spoke not only with the authority of a veteran Parliamentarian but also with the intimacy granted by lifelong experience of representing the views of all Britons in spite of personal adversity.

‘Perhaps the most compelling message from Baroness Masham’s address was this: although disability presents many challenges, it also offers the opportunity for a unique perspective on life’s many struggles, seen in the countless instances of success in the face of impairment – of which Baroness Masham is undeniably a fine example.’

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 15th November 2012 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=30012