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Press freedom debate: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger attacks royal charters as a 'medieval piece of nonsense'


Leading journalists last night voiced their concerns for the future of investigative reporting in the face of new press regulation, with Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, describing royal charters as a “medieval piece of nonsense”.

Click here to watch the full session of the Investigative Journalism Debate

In a debate at The London Press Club, Mr Rusbridger, who has come under fire in recent weeks for his paper’s publication of top-secret files, said: “What journalists have to do is create something clearly independent of politicians and the press and we would get a lot of support from the public. But this medieval piece of nonsense which appeared out of the blue is the thing that has hideously complicated things.”

The draft plan to regulate the press includes powers to impose million-pound fines on UK publishers, demand apologies, and set up a new low-fee complaints system. Supported by the main political parties, it will be put forward for approval to the Privy Council on 30 October.

Tom Harper, The Independent’s investigations reporter, said the proposed changes would prevent journalists getting information that was in the public interest.

In answer to the question “Can Investigative Journalism Survive?”, Mr Harper said: “Yes, it will always survive because there will always be people of conscience on the inside brave enough to blow the whistle. And there will always be nosy journalists who want to uncover wrongdoing.”

But he said it was getting increasingly difficult in the post-Leveson age as journalists’ interactions with sources are much harder. “Whistleblowers in the public interest are being arrested for exposing things that are embarrassing to officialdom and, thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know communications such as Skype are able to be monitored.

“Lord Justice Leveson proposed that all communications between journalists and police officers should be minuted and conducted in the presence of a press officer. I understand the concerns over inappropriate interactions between the police and the press, but that ‘catch-all’ recommendation has made it much harder for police officers to blow the whistle to journalists. I believe that is anti-democratic and, crucially, not in the public interest.”

Andrew Gilligan, a reporter for The Telegraph, said: “Arbitration would be free of charge for them (the claimants), but not for us. It will be a gold mine for claim farmers. There will be far fewer stories that will risk a claim.”

He added: “Almost all investigative journalism involves an assessment of the balance between risk and reward. By raising the risk, the balance is tipped further away from the journalist. I think press freedom stands at a crossroads in this country and we are all in real danger.”

Tom Bower, a biographer who has won a series of libel battles against Robert Maxwell, Richard Branson and Richard Desmond, said newspapers were already regulated by strict libel laws and an unforgiving public: “We are already regulated by some of the most draconian libel laws and if people don’t want to buy a newspaper they shut down like the News of the World. But, even with the failures at Stafford Hospital, it has still stayed open.”

Heather Brooke, a journalist who helped expose the MPs’ expenses scandal, said that it was a dangerous delusion that the public could think news coverage and investigative reporting could be free. It cost money and unless ways could be found to provide this serious journalism was under threat.

Doug Wills, Chairman of London Press Club, said: “We felt it was important that those on the front line of investigative journalism should be able to have a frank debate about what many see as unprecedented threats and pressures on investigative journalism. The passionate defence of serious journalism and the confidence in the future of investigations into issues of public interest was heartening to hear. And it was encouraging that the wide spectrum of people who attended the debate roundly supported this.”

A Royal Charter supported by the main political parties will be put forward for approval to the Privy Council on 30 October. An alternative charter drawn up by the industry was rejected by the Privy Council.