No to Leveson! A free press is vital to protect our rights and liberties

Press regulation will stifle local news even worse than national

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The UK has a free press. It might not be a pretty press, it might not write stories which politicians approve of or the chattering classes in Islington think are “worthy” but it is unhindered by excessive political influence. And it covers the news from the international to the local, serious to celebrity, thought-provoking to ire-inducing.

Politicians are frequently raising eyebrows and questions by virtue of holding strong opinions. But every now and again they do something so uncalled for and authoritarian which leaves us all slack-jawed in horror.  The move by the establishment to throw chains around our press goes against all that is good and true in our tradition. We have, for centuries, been a beacon of freedom, of liberty, for the world.

And if politicians are allowed to have their hands on the controls of the press, journalists will not be able to say very much about the politicians who contribute to our national life. I’ve no doubt that this is what they hope for: who can forget the expenses scandal of 2009 with stories even developing about how MPs were “fearing” they were next to be exposed, as if this wasn’t public money they were spending on duck houses, sofas and bath plugs. It was a story which delved into the attitude that politicians had about their sense of entitlement to this slush fund from building up a property portfolio to the blatant disregard for propriety on what the taxpayer should pay for.

The battles for freedom of the press and with it freedom of thought and conscience are the threads that wove together our national fabric. To tear that apart on the whim of a crowd of politicians and self-serving celebrities, a whim cobbled together late at night by those with huge vested interests, is to insult ourselves and holds cheap those who fought and suffered for our right to freedom and liberty. The price of that liberty is eternal vigilance and scrutiny.

A free media is all of our voices; it is a vital tool in protecting our freedoms and liberties from those who, no doubt for what they perceive to be our “own good”, would curtail them. Nanny doesn’t always know best: one only needs to look at the case of a man arrested for staring at an MSP to realise that the state has a vested interest in protecting its own.

But it’s not just the national newspapers which should be considered in this debate because the blow will land hardest on local newspapers and micro news sites. The local press in this country is still the preferred way in which the people get their news. Sixty-one per cent of people read a local newspaper, as opposed to 53 per cent who read a national newspaper. Nearly a quarter of those who read their local paper do not bother with the big national titles. They are the lifeblood of local communities and do an astounding job in holding organisations to account. Stories of immense local importance are covered that are seen as too parochial for the nationals, but are of a far greater importance to the way we live than much of what passes across the national stage.

It is well known these smaller media outlets are in financial trouble and are stripped to the bone. Fewer and fewer journalists attempt to fill the pages with stories. But the rules that are now set to govern the great and the good: the Guardians, Mails and Spectators of this world, papers and journals with large bank balances and rosters of journalists, who clash regularly with politicians and celebrities, are set to sound the death knell on the local media.

Local papers are very different from the nationals. They are reliant on the local whistle-blower, in order to hold local authorities to account and the young journalist keen to make their break and pursue a story. Fat on council tax money, local authorities are frequently happy to bully and silence local voices of opposition. Time and time again the threat of legal action has been used to stifle debate and press regulation will only exacerbate this.

It is already difficult enough for the local press. Add on top of this, pressure from politicians’ Royal Charter and independent local reporting becomes commercially unviable. This double whammy will ring the death knell of independent journalism in the provinces.

The case is even worse for the growing number of hyper-local news sites. These sites, often run by a single man or woman are providing a depth of information that is spikey and relevant. Operations like the Brixton Blog, Your Thurrock, On the Wight and AndoverTown.co.uk and many, many others are now creating a varied, disparate and valuable public space, the sort our predecessors thought they were fighting for; a truly free, independent and, at times, prickly press. They do not have the resources to fight malicious threats to their existence from overweening politicians. They will be big losers in this battle.

The press has not covered itself in glory in recent years: the hacking scandal, of which I am a victim, is just one example. However, those who have been libelled or abused by the press have access to legal recourse to defend their rights and their good name. Without a free press to hold politicians to account, the people will not have the knowledge and power to make their voices heard.

It is not as if the hacking scandal did not lead to huge changes using the existing laws. The biggest newspaper in the country closed down and journalists were arrested and charged.  This needed no Royal Charter or infringements on press freedom but a police force and prosecution service with the ability to uphold the law.

Whilst I may be alone in leading a political party which is against press regulation, there are many other voices out there who would concur. Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer is hardly someone who I would regularly agree with. But I quote his recent verdict on the proposals which aptly summarise the situation. “The Royal Charter and these acts of parliament, they are an affront. The media and their lawyers around the world are absolutely appalled. The East India company was less regulated than the press will be.”

In a free market, you have the choice to express your opinion on which newspapers you like and which you disapprove of. You don’t have to buy them. For those clamouring to stifle debate and attack media outlets may I offer this as an alternative to the draconian measures you are seeking to impose on our media. History will look more kindly on you than continuing on your current path.

Nigel Farage MEP is the leader of Ukip.

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