Thursday, 30 April 2015

Campaign Letters #2: Press Freedoms and Media Ownership.

Thank you for your email on media ownership and the abuse of power.

If I give you a long answer to a short question, please understand why.  For a politician to go charging into to a freedom of speech debate knowing all the answers is extremely dangerous.

Yes, my initial reaction on Leveson was to back the report in full and ignore the howls of complaints from the big media.  But when Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, joins in the criticism of the report, one should sit up and take notice.  Private Eye has repeatedly covered the stories that many other mainstream papers would not touch until there was no other option.  Any comment from it concerning press freedom is therefore worthy of the upmost consideration.

Liberal Democrats share the hope of Lord Justice Leveson that the incentives for the press to sign up to genuinely independent self-regulation will succeed. But if, in the judgment of the Press Recognition Panel, after 12 months of operation, there is significant non-cooperation by newspaper publishers, then – as Leveson himself concluded – Parliament will need to act, drawing on a range of options including the legislative steps necessary to ensure that independent self- regulation is delivered. Where possible, we would seek to do this on the same cross-party basis that achieved the construction of the Leveson scheme by the Royal Charter

On the phone hacking scandal and payment to public officials, there are already laws covering such issues.  Operation Elveden is making it clear that enforcing these laws and bringing successful prosecutions is extremely difficult.  I would be open to ideas to tighten up upon illegal acts committee by individuals; making the owning corporations and senior executives culpable in their responsibility.  At this time, it seems that claiming ignorance or a failure to recollect the facts are indeed enough of a defence.

As a Liberal Democrat, I believe it is vital to uphold freedom of speech.  Part of that process is that, in a democracy, people have the right to be wrong in the view of others.  This has to be balanced with responsibility.  The major question is to what and to whom?  My best answer are to the facts of a given situation.  Thus the responsibility of media should be answerable to presenting not the best, but the most balanced evaluation of available facts.

In order to protect journalists who pursue facts with the aim to uncover corruption, Liberal Democrats would:

Introduce statutory public interest defences for exceptional cases where journalists may need to break the law (such as RIPA, the 2010 Bribery Act, and the 1998 Computer Misuse Act) to expose corruption or other criminal acts.

Ensure judicial authorisation is required for the acquisition of communications data which might reveal journalists’ sources or other privileged communications, for any of the purposes allowed under RIPA; and allow journalists the opportunity to address the court before authorisation is granted, where this would not jeopardise the investigation.

Undertake a post-legislative review of the 2013 Defamation Act, which Liberal Democrats drove through Parliament, to ensure the new provisions are reducing the chill of libel threats.

Introduce, after consultation on the detail, the changes to the 1998 Data Protection Act recommended by Lord Justice Leveson to provide a fairer balance between personal privacy and the requirements of journalism, ensuring that the position of investigative journalists is safeguarded.

To guarantee press freedom, we will pass a British ‘First Amendment’ law, to require the authorities and the courts to have regard to the importance of a free media in a democratic society.
To nurture public interest journalism and protect the public from press abuse, we are committed to a system of accountability that is totally independent of both government and the newspaper industry, as set out in the Royal Charter on Press Regulation.

On media ownership, again it is in everybody's interest that a single individual does not become too powerful.  I did not want to particularly name an individual organisation but in the case of News International, it has been very successful in building up its own global power by putting itself and the service of the ruling elites of wherever it is operating: Fox News and The Wall Street Journal in the US, Sky News Arabia and, until last year, Star TV China.  I do not have to quote to you more local examples.

News International's global reach just shows how difficult it is for a single nation to uphold desired standards.  We certainly do not want any state of affairs that resembles that of Italy, when while in power Silvio Berlusconi was in control of the majority of private companies and as prime minister control the state media outlets too.  

The trouble is that, as Nome Chomsky pointed out in his book Necessary Illusions, big business owns most big media and thus has many more shared values to protecting the status quo than in depicting reality as it stands.

This leads us to the nub of the matter: the depiction of the facts.  A year ago I was asked to comment by a friend on a ten minute video presentation by film director David Puttnam, in which he asks the question whether the media has a duty of care towards the public.  My blog piece is here:

Why media responsibility towards facts are so important is because it is where most people get their information from.  In the end, it has to come down to respecting facts and protecting those who pursue them.

If you have any further points you would like to raise, or indeed subjects, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Veart
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Edinburgh North and Leith.

PS.  Unlike Labour, the Conservatives or the SNP, The Sun and Rupert Murdoch has never supported the Liberal Democrats nor urged their readers to vote for us.  I'm fine with that.  mv.

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