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Independent Bath Literature Festival: Leveson will have a 'detrimental effect on journalism'

Media inquiry urged to focus on PR and the lobbying industry. Arifa Akbar and David Maude report

Politicians and journalists have had an unhealthily close relationship to one another, audiences heard at The Independent Bath Literature Festival.

A panel of speakers which included two MPs and Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, were debating whether politicians and the media "were as bad as each other" in the light of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

Mr Blackhurst, who has given evidence to the inquiry, said journalists and politicians formed "a giant club" at Westminster, and that successive governments had courted newspaper proprietors. But he warned against any draconian regulation of the press.

Referring to his tenure as deputy editor of The Express when Richard Desmond took over the paper, Mr Blackhurst said: "We were trying to turn the paper into a more liberal and upmarket paper but management lost its nerve. They sold the paper to Richard Desmond... Within a fortnight, the heavy bulk of the Labour Cabinet was fawning over Desmond. We were really shocked by it."

He feared regulation after the inquiry, as it would attenuate press freedom and have a detrimental effect on journalistic investigations for the public good.

"The tragedy is it's a very small group of journalists misbehaving, a very small group of police officers and a very small group of politicians misbehaving, the result of which have been 13 different forms of inquiry," Mr Blackhurst said. "I'm extremely nervous about what's going to happen," he added.

"Lord Leveson will come up with some proposal that will regulate the industry. If he comes up with a structure that is very onerous and prevents us doing investigations, it will prevent [for example] the Daily Telegraph being given a stolen CD-Rom of expenses, and we would not now know that some MPs were fiddling their expenses. What he's not looking at, which I think he should be, is the PR and the lobbying industry, they are corrupting the press."

Tristram Hunt, writer and Labour MP, said history showed a "symbiotic relationship between the press and politics" had always existed. The Leveson Inquiry had unearthed "pretty ugly stuff", but an inquiry into the inner workings of many occupations would do the same, he said, adding: "If you have the Leveson Inquiry for the legal profession, or even for landscape gardening, you would find some ugly stuff unearthed."

But Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster said the relationship between Westminster and the media must be regulated. "Politicians are trying to manipulate the media and the media is trying to sell papers. Politicians are trying to influence the media and the media is trying to dictate what policy should be... It's got to change."

The author and panelist, Malcolm Dean, pointed out that those UK "newspapers with the lowest level of trust have the highest circulation and papers with the highest level of trust have the lowest circulation".

Warning over university funds

The university funding shake-up depends on an "accounting trick" that could end in a new sub-prime loans crisis, the festival was warned on Saturday.

Maureen Freely, a novelist and professor of English at Warwick University said: "You can be sure this won't work."

Melissa Benn, a writer and campaigner, said: "You can't trust the promises of our unstable political masters because they want not to be in charge of anything."

Empire humour from Paxman

Jeremy Paxman spoke about the evolution of the British empire from its beginnings to its modern legacy.

Speaking about his book, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, he called into question early pioneer Robert Clive, saying "if he was around today, he would have been given an Asbo".

Paxman said the empire was run as a "commercial operation in the early days".

Borgia novel unveiled

Festival-goers had a sneak preview of Sarah Dunant's historical novel on the Borgias, which she only finished writing last week. Blood and Beauty dramatises the murder of Giovanni Borgia, the duke of Gandia, in 1497. Giovanni was the second son of Pope Alexander VI.

Giovanni, may have been killed by his brother, Cesare, but "deserved to be murdered", says Dunant. The Pope "howled with anguish" as the body of his beloved son was hauled out of the Tiber.