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The press needs a regulator that outlives the memory of the last scandal

9 January 2013

5:12 PM

9 January 2013

5:12 PM

Ahead of a major Spectator debate on the implications of the Leveson report, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi explains why he supports a statute-backed system of press regulation.

Yesterday’s mid-term review included the statement ‘We will continue to work on a cross-party basis towards the implementation of the Leveson Report on press regulation’. A welcome reminder that the question of what to do about press regulation has not been forgotten over the Christmas break.

But what we should do is still very much up for debate. We now have two Bills, Labour’s ‘Press Freedom and Trust Bill’ and Hacked Off’s ‘Leveson Bill’, and of course the Government will be coming forward with its own Bill in due course. While all three will undoubtedly agree that the status quo can’t continue, exactly how the new regulator should be constituted, and how it will be held to account is still up in the air.

I was one of the 42 Conservative MPs who signed a letter calling for a statute-backed system of press regulation. I still think we need a mechanism – be it statute, or a Royal Charter – which ensures the new regulator has credibility, both in terms of independence and real teeth.

The Press Complaints Commission failed on both these counts. It lacked the teeth to properly investigate or punish breaches of the Editorial Code and it lacked independence in the eyes of the public. After all, this was the organisation that took the News of the World at its word when it said phone-hacking was the work of ‘one rogue reporter’.

I have no doubt that editors and proprietors will continue to argue that new regulation is unnecessary, because the worst abuses examined by Leveson already incur legal penalties. But not everyone has the means to legal action against a major media company. And it’s a shallow argument which takes arresting journalists and hauling them through the courts to be more conducive to press freedom than actually enforcing the Editor’s Code. The prospect of so many British journalists facing prison is deeply shameful. I want to see a regulator which keeps newspapers away from the criminal justice system.

The other argument against a ‘backed’ regulator, one often made by this magazine’s own editor, is that this is a slippery slope ending in political control of newspapers. This argument does British democracy a great disservice. I was born and grew up in Saddam’s Baghdad, so unlike many who have spoken in this debate I have lived under a system of state-controlled press. The British public would never stand for such a system, nor for politicians who espoused it. The independence of our press is paramount, just like the independence of our judiciary, (which also happens to be guaranteed in statute).  Whilst I am a Member of Parliament I will do everything to ensure it remains that way.

What the public do want is a press that can be trusted again. Trusted to break the story, not the law. This means coming up with a regulator that outlives the memory of the last scandal.

Is Leveson a fundamental threat to a free press? On Wednesday 30 January, the Spectator hosts a debate between advocates of statutory regulation Chris Bryant and Max Mosley and those against statute, Richard Littlejohn, Paul Staines and John Whittingdale. You can book tickets here.

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