Media: Here is the news - and that's guaranteed: Press accuracy should be enshrined as a public right, says Clive Soley MP. Patricia Wynn Davies looks at his proposed reforms

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The Independent Online
BEFORE YOU built a garage or loft extension you would have to get permission from gays and lesbians, if Clive Soley, the MP for Hammersmith and his party, Labour, had their way. That was the drift of stories in the Sun and the Daily Mail earlier this year.

Mr Soley, sponsor of the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, now going through Parliament, says the untrue tale had been circulating for a couple of months but was not used until the election. The self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which rarely entertains third-party complaints, dismissed a reader's protest that the story was misinformation that could influence how people cast their votes, and the story was corrected only when Mr Soley complained himself.

The episode encapsulates the nub of his Private Member's Bill, which confines itself to a single, manageable concept: a statutory right for the reading public to receive accurate news, not misinformation or disinformation, and a statutory duty on editors to produce it. As Mr Soley sees it, if editors don't produce accurate news, they cannot argue for press freedom.

The other thrust of the measure would sideline the industry-dominated and funded PCC and create a lay-dominated, publicly funded Independent Press Authority. It would be charged with upholding high ethical standards, have the power to adjudicate over corrections and, if need be, take cases to the courts, where the punishment for non-compliance would be a contempt fine.

The Sun's handling of the 'Dianagate' tapes is a classic example of the moving force behind many editorial decisions, Mr Soley says. 'The paper sat on them for two years on the grounds that it didn't think using them 'was the right thing to do'. It became the right thing when sales of the Daily Mirror rose by 120,000.'

If editors thought about it, he says, they would realise that the current self- regulatory system is unfair on them. 'An editor does have to worry about circulation,' he says. Better to let someone else tell them they've got it wrong.

The Bill would create a kind of poor and middle-income person's libel law, with the bonus that they would not have to prove the untruth was defamatory. Mr Soley believes that few cases would reach court after an authority complaints adviser had ordered a correction. There would be a sort of back-door legal aid for those that did, financed from the public purse via the authority's estimated pounds 3m annual budget.

There is a pressing need for a better means of regulation than the law of libel, says Mr Soley. 'I cheered like mad when a couple of papers got clobbered with damages of half a million pounds. But I knew rationally that that was an incredibly bad way to discipline the press.'

The Bill would not stop libel actions, but he does not think juries would award large damages where inaccuracies had been corrected.

He maintains there is a better-than-average chance of the Bill getting through the critical second reading stage on 29 January. About 15 Tories have pledged support, and there are no obvious 'anti' factions among Labour MPs. A series of cross-party Commons hearings with complainants, editors and professional groups, which began yesterday, might garner more support.

But there is a split in the Liberal Democrat camp. Sir David Steel, one of the MPs conducting the hearings, is one of two supporters, but the official line is to continue with self-regulation in the form of a reformed PCC with powers to fine.

The Bill stems from Mr Soley's increasing worries in the Eighties that while journalistic standards were collapsing, press freedom was being eroded at an alarming rate. Stories were being made up while dissent was being suppressed by measures such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

There are no fewer than 13 restrictions on press freedom, under statute or by convention. 'Pravda used to stop the reporting of things that didn't fit the conventional wisdom of the Soviet Union,' he says. 'And then when it couldn't hide the Sakharovs of this world any more, it presented them as mad or bad.'

Parallels in Britain can be found in the long run-up to the release of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six. 'The Murdoch press, but some of the others, too, tried not to report something embarrassing to the government or the establishment, and above all they slagged off dissenters,' he says. 'Ordinary people were being set up as pro-IRA for saying they were innocent. The British criminal justice system had gone badly off the rails, but the dissenters were attacked.'

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