MPs support tighter curbs on the press

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The Independent Online
THE VAST majority of MPs believe the national press fails to provide honest, responsible journalism, and would support tighter statutory controls, according to a survey published yesterday.

About 80 per cent of backbenchers from all parties, polled by the Association of British Editors, feel the system of self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission is failing and more than half would replace it with a regulatory body with statutory powers or an ombudsman, or both.

The newspaper industry is still waiting for the Government's White Paper on media regulation, delayed for more than a year. The association believes the fear now among editors is that these backbench views could well encourage Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, to act sooner rather than later. It expects the White Paper to include proposals for a privacy law and some form of statutory control to replace the complaints commission.

James Bishop, the association's chairman, said the survey results made grim reading 'not just for the media but for all who believe that press freedom in Britain has already been eroded to danger point'.

However, he denied that the survey undermined self-regulation. The findings, he said, had provided vital insight into the minds of those in favour of statutory regulation. 'We now know the depth of the opposition and the dangers we face.'

But Mr Bishop suggested there was a gulf between backbench and public opinion. 'The spectacular things that MPs complain about - such as hounding of the Royal Family - do not seem to be supported by the public because the public goes out and buys those stories.' Mr Bishop believed that no additional legal protection beyond the law of libel was necessary.

The survey also found strong support, particularly among Conservatives, for a new privacy law (63 per cent were in favour of the Lord Chancellor's proposed privacy tort). However, almost all opposition MPs and nearly one-third of Conservatives who took part said they would vote for a Freedom of Information Bill.

The BBC's board of governors performed badly, according to more than half of the 200 MPs questioned, although its television and radio programmes were highly rated.

The survey was kinder to the regional press and magazines than to national newspapers. Some 60 per cent of MPs said the nationals did not provide honest, responsible journalism.

But the association's executive director, Jock Gallagher, urged regional newspaper and magazine editors not to relax because they had largely escaped censure. 'Once the politicians start to legislate it is almost inevitable they'll do it on a blanket basis and everyone will find themselves inhibited in one way or another.'