Beginning of end of press freedom?
MPs will vote today on rival plans for press regulation. Both sides favour the establishment of a new, tougher system which would be created by a royal charter. This is a document granted by the Crown which establishes the rights and powers of an organisation. They have been used to form universities, the BBC and the Bank of England.
The attraction of a royal charter is that it is a powerful means of establishing a new regulatory system but keeps the Government at arm's length because it cannot make changes to the charter or interfere with the workings of the new press watchdog.
David Cameron and most of his Tory MPs believe that this is a sufficiently robust system to keep the press in order while retaining its independence from Government. The Liberal Democrats and Labour disagree and think that the proposals must go further. They want the royal charter to be enshrined in law.
Many newspapers and commentators believe this is a dangerous step towards state regulation. Their argument is that it is the thin of the wedge; that once the principle of parliamentary regulation is established future Governments will revisit the legislation, increasing their power over what has hitherto been a free and independent press.
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The parliamentary arithmetic is such that David Cameron is likely to lose today's vote and this will lead to the press being effectively brought under the control of the state.
Most newspapers did not hack telephones, which is any case already illegal. Most newspapers abide by the decisions of the Press Complaints Commission.
Britain already has a raft of draconian laws which govern the press; a libel system heavily weighted in favour of litigants; a newly established privacy law; and a raft of reporting restrictions which make coverage of public courts increasingly problematic.
Those who think newspapers now need statutory regulation – however remote and well-meaning that starts out as being – are in danger of taking another step along a road which will end the freedom of the press to report and investigate, fearlessly and independently, in the public interest.