Another debate on press regulation offers no new arguments

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Just days after the publication of a draft royal charter on press regulation by the government, the Centre for Investigative Journalism brought together a panel to debate the issue.

Taking part in the discussion was Brian Cathcart from the Hacked Off campaign, Chris Blackhurst, editor of the Independent, Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and Geoffrey Robertson a human rights lawyer.

Leveson’s recommendations have been under attack from the press. Many such as Mick Hume, who devoted a book to the issue, have argued that if Leveson’s recommendations are implemented they will restrict press freedom.

Mr Cathcart, one of Leveson’s supporters, said that the press was offered a generous deal that sounds a lot like another round in the last chance saloon.

The Lord Justice’s report recommended the creation of a new independent and self-regulated body to act as watchdog over the press. Although joining the body would not be mandatory, media organisations who choose not to would face high fines.

Mr Hislop, who’s magazine isn’t  a member of the Press Complaints Commission, and Mr Blackhurst argued that makes it much the same as being obligatory.

To that Mr Cathcart responded that journalists and editors should want to join the regulating body and want to show they have high standards.

“Leveson’s exemplary damages are a stick, now the press wants a rubber stick” – Brian Cathcart

He said: “Leveson’s exemplary damages are a stick, now the press wants a rubber stick. They don’t want any pressure to join the regulator they don’t want regulation, they don’t want high standards, they don’t want anything that will oblige them to think about the people they write about as human beings.”

The main concerns raised during the debate reflected what has been mentioned in the media. There is a widespread belief that Leveson’s recommendations could lead to a chilling effect on investigative journalism. This is linked to his suggestion to reform the Data Protection Act and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act that could threaten journalists’ access to information and their sources’ confidentiality.  Mr Cathcart has addressed these concerns here.

Both Mr Blackhurst and Mr Hislop were keen to point out that the Hacked Off group makes a generalisation of the press. He said that papers like the Guardian and the Independent had been roped into the scandal and that he wished the good of the press was also echoed.

All of the speakers offered some compelling arguments but it does seem that the debate about Leveson’s recommendations and press regulation just goes round in circles.

At some point a balance needs to be found between protecting the public from powerful media outlets so that we don’t see a repeat of what happened to Christopher Jefferies or the McCanns, whilst preserving the freedom of the press in a country where the press is already strictly regulated by law.

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