Letter: Fetters on the press in the UK

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The Independent Online
Sir: Behind the debate on the future of the press is the implicit assumption by Sir David Calcutt and many politicians that the press is too powerful, has unfettered freedoms and needs to be curbed. The reality is somewhat different. The press in Britain is more circumscribed and constrained than in most comparable democracies. Our laws on libel and on contempt of court, our Official Secrets Act and the statutory restrictions on freedom of information in many key pieces of legislation create a legal minefield for the media.

It is not the case, as Andreas Whittam Smith argues (12 January), that the press 'is as well informed as ministers'. Far too much information is controlled by ministers and denied to the press. A current example is the detailed pit by pit information which lies behind the Government's colliery closure plans, and which Michael Heseltine and British Coal refuse to publish.

At the same time as it is considering tackling press abuses such as electronic eavesdropping, peeping-Tom photographs and doorstep harassment, the Government should take action to strengthen the essential freedom of the press. We need a Bill of Rights with a guarantee of freedom of expression based on article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and a Freedom of Information Act to bring us in line with countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Greece and Sweden. Together with reforms of the laws of libel and contempt of court, and amendments of the Official Secrets Act to give a public interest defence, these initiatives would begin to correct the imbalance between the power of the government and the power of the press.

John Major could make a start on this agenda by supporting the Right to Know Bill, which I am sponsoring and which receives its Second Reading on 19 February. Without the general presumption in favour of freedom of information contained in that Bill, and without a statutory guarantee of freedom of speech, the press in Britain will continue to be circumscribed at a time when what our democracy needs is for it to be stronger and better informed.

Yours faithfully,

MARK FISHER

MP for Stoke on Trent

Central (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

12 January

The writer is Labour spokesperson on the Citizen's Charter, open government and women.

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