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'We must not destroy freedom of Press' –Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 03, 2012

Sarah Wollaston

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A Westcountry Conservative MP has said David Cameron is right to be "wary" of legislation to underpin a new press watchdog, warning that the move risks "threatening free speech and democracy".

Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston is the region's most vocal parliamentary opponent to Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for independent self-regulation of the Press.

Writing for the Western Morning News, in a piece to appear on Monday on the day of a House of Commons debate on the Leveson report, Dr Wollaston argues that it becomes "all too easy" for the Government to restrict press reporting once the regulator is written into law.

She said: "It is right that we should be wary. Any compulsion to join a regulator would amount to state regulation, threatening free speech and democracy and that would be a high price to pay."

David Cameron voiced "serious concerns and misgivings" about legislative action in the immediate aftermath of the report's publication on Thursday.

While Justice Leveson condemned the "culture of reckless and outrageous journalism" that dominated sections of the national press, the Prime Minister said the industry should be given "a limited period of time" to show it could get its house in order.

The comments put him on collision course with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband, and drew criticism from victims of the phone hacking scandal and press intrusion. A new watchdog would be given the power to require prominent apologies and impose fines.

Regional newspapers make a contribution to their communities that is "truly without parallel", Justice Leveson said, arguing that the criticisms should not be applied to local print journalists.

Mr Cameron's caution has won support from Dr Wollaston, who was elected in 2010. She writes: "Cameron is right not to rush to accept Leveson, however reassuring and wise he may appear. We need a full debate about the wider implications.

"The British Press may have enjoyed the longest pub crawl in history through last chance saloons but they have also protected our freedoms, entertained and informed us.

"If they are over-regulated we will simply drive more people to seek their scandals from online sources with almost no accountability at all. If newspapers become irrelevant who will buy them at all?"

Dr Wollaston, a former GP on Dartmoor, is critical of "disturbing practices" within the industry and "cultural attitudes amongst certain editors" that allowed illegal activity to take place. She also believes the principles behind the proposals are "sensible".

But she writes: "Leveson's most controversial recommendation is for legislation to recognise the new self-regulatory body. The question is whether this represents statutory regulation of the Press.

"Once that is written into law it is all too easy for the lines to be re-drawn to regulate what the Press can or cannot say or to exclude those whose views are unsympathetic to the Government of the day.

"Whilst Leveson explicitly states that he does not feel this would be the case and also suggests that we could legislate for the independence of the Press, it should concern us that once a line has been crossed to 'underpin' the regulator in law, it may result in a press that is directed or restricted."

Culture Secretary Maria Miller yesterday insisted the "principles" of Justice Leveson's blueprint can be met without giving it statutory backing.

But Gerry McCann, father of missing Madeleine McCann, said legal backing for any new system was the "minimum acceptable compromise for me and for many other victims".

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  • eu_blues  |  December 04 2012, 9:16PM

    Maybe Sarah you should consider the consequences of the Leveson Inquiry on what little freedom of the press we currently have in the UK. If the government is given the full green light to regulate the press, then we will have no way of knowing anything. No one will be held accountable in authority bodies, but just allowed to do whatever they want to do without any acountability. Below is an excerpt from the Daily Mail piece about the affect Leveson will have on the press. Like I said, did we ever have DEMOCRACY in this country, ever. Leveson is just another way of gagging the press even further. We seem to be living in an ever forming Communist system like Soviet Russia. The points made below speak the truth, and some people just don't like the truth. REALITY: Protecting a journalist's sources is a fundamental principle of investigative reporting. Yet Leveson wants to remove the 'journalistic exemption' for material which might be considered 'stolen' – which would include most leaked information – and let the police or Financial Services Authority seize it. The irony is that Leveson praises the Daily Telegraph's exposure of the MPs' expenses scandal – yet under his proposal, they would have had to hand over the leaked/stolen material and turn in the mole. Daily Mail IN REALITY: Leveson wants an end to off-the-record briefings between the police and the press. He wants information to come only through formal police channels. The proposals, influenced by police chiefs, are supposed to increase 'transparency'. Yet they are likely to leave the public more in the dark about what the police are doing. Off-the-record briefings are a key tool for both reporters and the police. Making them non-reportable will not mean more police information coming out, but far less – a step towards a secret state. Daily Mail REALITY: In response to the Inquiry's revelations about the 'cosy' relationship between the press and political leaders, Leveson proposes to change the entire character of lobby journalism. The proposal effectively to outlaw off-the-record briefings could be disastrous for political reporting. If politicians can speak only on the record, it will surely mean they talk even more in scripted, hollow soundbites. The long struggle to report the truth about politics to the people will be set back. What is more, it seems the new unelected press regulator will also be tasked with holding our elected leaders to account. Some of us thought that was the voters' role. Daily Mail REALITY: No doubt part of the intention here is to prevent a repeat of what happened to Christopher Jefferies, landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates, who was monstered by newspapers when arrested. But there have been countless other cases where the role of the press in identifying those arrested or suspected of serious crimes has been crucial in informing the public, aiding the police and keeping the criminal justice process open to scrutiny. Daily Mail

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  • Sarah_Jones11  |  December 03 2012, 7:28PM

    The way I see it is that its not "WE that are destroying the freedom of the press", It is I'm afraid the press themselves that have destroyed the freedom they had by not regulating and not abiding by moral and legal standards. It is Fleet Street that destoyed the freedom of the press.

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  • Orientsteve  |  December 03 2012, 5:38PM

    This MP is rapidly losing my confidence in her. First she supports a minority of Totnes people against Costa Coffee opening in the town, and now this. Clearly she has no idea how serious the phone hacking sandal was, and the impact on those affected cannot be exaggerated. The press have been given eight opportunities to sort themselves out, and all have failed. Why should they be given a ninth chance?

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  • ineedtherapy  |  December 03 2012, 12:34PM

    And so for the 8th time the press are going to draw up a code of conduct What makes anybody wonder what wil make them either sign up to it in the first place or adhere to it if they do sign up Certain sections of the press in this country are simply not capable of regulating themselves....this has been proved time and time again. Accept that the individuals involved in the last disgrace are at long last being brought to justice but there is also a thing called corporate responsibility and we need to reinforce this. Editors might think before hacking into somebodies phone/email etc etc if there is a chance that the paper will either be fined out of existence or forced to close. What happens now--an apology for wrong doing printed in the bottom left hand corner of page 35 just under the sex line advertisements. Free speech is one thing....illegal activity is something completely different...the debate on this is becoming mored blurred than ever.

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  • eu_blues  |  December 02 2012, 9:53PM

    She said: "It is right that we should be wary. Any compulsion to join a regulator would amount to state regulation, threatening free speech and democracy and that would be a high price to pay." Have we ever lived in a DEMOCRACY to begin with. As for free speech....

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  • Notrik  |  December 02 2012, 4:52PM

    The Tories are very vociferous in standing up for what their chums in the press want but very silent on how the press can be regulated adequately without legislation - not legislation to control the press, whatever they might be trying to make us believe, but legislation to make an independent watchdog effective.

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  • nicold  |  December 02 2012, 10:27AM

    Regulation is not needed. What happened was against the law and the people involved are being punished.

  • Sinjis_Things  |  December 01 2012, 3:52PM

    Would Ms Wollaston think the same if she were one of the, unfortunate, victims of excessive press intrusion of their private lives?

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