We DO need statutory press controls say Miliband & Hutton
Media barons enjoy freedom to manipulate opinions of millions, and must be accountable, says Will Hutton
LABOUR leader Ed Miliband has risked the ire of newspaper editors by urging David Cameron to implement Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for press regulation so long as the judge's findings are "proportionate and reasonable".
Referring to a meeting he had last week with victims of phone-hacking and press intrusion, Miliband writes in The Guardian: "Rejection of the report will be seen as a clear breach of the promise we made to them. If parliament chooses a different course from that recommended, we will need very good reasons for doing so."
Amid weekend reports – denied by Downing Street – that Cameron has already decided not to implement statutory controls, Miliband reminds the PM that he did promise he would implement the Leveson report unless its proposals were "bonkers".
"Bonkers" is, of course, a judgment call that leaves both Cameron and Miliband some wriggle-room. But as the Guardian says, the Labour leader has consistently refused to dismiss statutory controls, despite "intensive lobbying by newspaper executives in recent weeks".
And he is not alone. Amid a welter of newspaper articles over the weekend denouncing preempting Leveson's supposed attack on press freedom, one journalistic voice stood out – that of Will Hutton, the veteran economics correspondent and former editor of The Observer, writing under the headline: ‘Why I, as a journalist and ex-editor, believe it is time to regulate the press'.
In a nutshell, Hutton assumes that Leveson will propose some sort of beefed-up Press Complaints Commission with statutory powers to investigate and fine newspapers that do not abide by a new code of best practice.
Opponents argue that it the proposal is "unworkable, slow and legalistic" and will allow the state to limit freedom of speech.
"Such criticisms are bunk, tired and born of special pleading," Hutton counters. The groundswell of newspaper voices attacking Leveson "smacks of doctors, the Lloyds insurance market, trade union barons, the police and various other special interest groups over the years trying to protect self-regulation that had palpably failed.
"The brutal truth is that British newspapers have become far too careless about the boundaries between news and comment, too ready to use innuendo to prove a point, too fast to phone-hack/pay for information to stand up hunches that have little or no public interest defence but which serve the political and cultural interests of proprietors."
Hutton points to the recent character assassination in the press of Hugh Grant and Sir David Bell.
Grant has been vilified as a "hypocritical luvvie" by various newspaper columnists, in particular Stephen Glover and Amanda Platell of the Daily Mail, since daring to go before Leveson and complain about phone-hacking.
Bell was torn apart earlier this month by the same paper on the grounds that as well as acting as an adviser to Lord Leveson, he was a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the outfit involved in the disastrous Newsnight programme that wrongly connected Lord McAlpine with the north Wales child abuse scandal.
This was enough to have the Mail spluttering about a left-wing "coup" that threatened freedom of speech in Britain.
Said Hutton: "Yes, freedom of speech is the great Enlightenment gift that comes with the freedom to dare to know and to challenge. But it is not a charter for systematic character assassination by powerful media organisations that offer no right of reply, nor redress for mistakes.
"The precious freedom of speech of an individual is different from the freedom of speech of a media corporation with its capacity to manipulate the opinions of millions, which is why it must take place within the law and within a framework of accountability.
"Freedom is not only menaced by the state; it is also menaced by private media barons and their servants, a reality that those doughty, self-anointed champions of freedom, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, never address."
Hutton concludes: "Our democracy, economy and society need a stronger press prepared and equipped to speak truth to private and public power."
Like Ed Miliband, Hutton believes Leveson offers a once-in-a-generation chance to put that right. "The chance must not be missed."