The freedom of the press to hold the powerful to account could be lost. Midland MPs tell political editor DANIEL WAINWRIGHT that regional titles like the Express & Star should not be tarred with the same brush as the tabloids that hacked phones
No reporter from the Express & Star has ever hacked a mobile phone. Nor have we paid the police for a story.Yet we may soon be treated the same as the journalists on national newspapers who did.
Today, MPs in the West Midlands, including Tom Watson who was at the forefront of exposing the actions of journalists at the News Of The World, have called for a distinction to be made between the regional and national press if statutory regulations are introduced in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.
The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press revealed widespread wrongdoing, particularly among national tabloids, who threw caution and morality to the wind in pursuit of sensational, circulation-boosting front page leads.
Lord Justice Leveson spent eight months taking evidence and a further four months writing up his report.
It is widely expected that at the end of this month he will recommend MPs introduce a law calling for the statutory regulation of the press.
Meanwhile, regional newspapers are doing their best to adapt to a changing market and to competition from the internet.
The bureaucracy that comes from statutory regulation would be a further cost burden that many, smaller publications, will not be able to bear.
That will mean further cost cutting and more news going unreported if they are less able to afford to staff courts, council meetings and events.
While MPs from the West Midlands will await the Leveson report before making up their minds, many have said that a special case must be made for the regional press, which was never implicated in the appalling cases of phone hacking reported to the inquiry.
Tom Watson, the West Bromwich MP who can be credited with bringing much of the phone hacking scandal at the News Of The World into the open, is certain a distinction needs to be made. He said: “I believe that newspapers fall into three distinct categories – regional, national broadsheet and national tabloid. The clear offenders were national tabloids on all accounts.
“I’m aware that any new regulatory arrangements for the industry should be sensitive to the potential for regional papers to suffer because of the offences of the out-of-control tabloid media. There will need to be reform. But it is not beyond the wit of man to find a solution that guarantees the tabloids are dealt with while regional papers are not shackled with overbearing and onerous bureaucracy.”
Margot James, Conservative MP for Stourbridge, said: “Some change is highly likely and probably necessary.
“I believe that regional and local media present a very different challenge to that posed by the national media, particularly the tabloids. It may be that we need a different approach to regional media, which has never pushed the boundaries in the same way that became common place on Fleet Street. Regional and local press are rooted in their communities. We must not burden them with a costly and bureaucratic system that there is no evidence to suggest they require.”
MPs are keen not to prejudice the outcome of Lord Leveson’s report but said they did not want to see regional newspapers punished for something they did not do.
Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East, said: “The regional press had nothing to do with phone hacking and that has to be remembered when we look at the outcome of the inquiry.”
Labour MP Ian Austin, who represents Dudley North, urged Lord Leveson not to propose anything that would harm the regional press. He said: “The problems have not been in the regional press. I hope Lord Leveson will learn from and do nothing to jeopardise the exemplary practices and integrity of Britain’s regional media.”
Pat McFadden, MP for Wolverhampton South East, agreed and said: “There is public concern at some of the conduct exposed by the Leveson Inquiry. But it would be a mistake to tar all newspapers with the same brush.
“In particular, I think the public has a greater trust in regional newspapers than they do in some of the national titles.”
Some MPs have already signed a letter published in The Guardian calling for an independent regulator of the press. They want a regulator for newspapers similar to Ofcom, which oversees the conduct of broadcasters.
But one of the MPs to sign it, Wolverhampton South West Tory Paul Uppal said: “From my experience over the past two and a half years I have noticed a marked difference in the approach of regional journalists compared with national ones and that should be taken into account.”
Another of the letter’s signatories is James Morris, Conservative MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
He said: “There does need to be an independent body to make sure that newspapers abide by the rules, because self-regulation by the media has self-evidently failed. But we mustn’t lose sight of the vital role that regional and local newspapers play in our local democracy. They have not behaved as irresponsibly as some national papers and so I would not expect them to be affected by any new framework.”
Newspapers are currently self-regulating through the Press Complaints Commission, and the Express & Star has always abided by its judgment if we have got anything wrong. The PCC would be stripped of its role.
Industry insiders warn that if the state does control newspapers, it is only a short step to the Government censoring what can go in them.
The president of the Newspaper Society Adrian Jeakings said: “It is inconceivable that any statutory regime could be established to regulate just a small section of the popular national press, imposing special controls and penalties on some publications and not on others.
“In practice, hundreds of responsible newspapers and magazines would find themselves swept up into a costly and unnecessary system of legal controls and constraints which would have an enormous impact on their freedom to publish in the UK.
“Similarly, newspaper and magazines websites would be handicapped while our online competitors in the form of other websites, bloggers and social media would remain unfettered.”