The long-awaited inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the British press” being run by Lord Leveson is nearing completion, and rumblings of a proposal to regulate the press are beginning to surface.
Let us be clear – a free press is a fundamental part of a democratic society. From bloggers to broadsheets, the idea that the state should be able to decide who gets to publish is entirely at odds with the essential role the press plays in holding the state and authority to account.
We entirely agree with Eric Pickles MP and Boris Johnson, to name but a few who have spoken out against the idea of Parliament passing a new law to regulate the press.
In our evidence to the Leveson enquiry, we made a simple argument against statutory regulation of the press. Everything that has led to the Leveson enquiry is already punishable under criminal law.
From phone hacking to blagging information from public and private organisations, those people intentionally acquiring information they did not have the right to access are already committing a a criminal offence. The fact that the Information Commissioner is woefully short of powers and that it is still not a criminal offence to breach Section 55 of the Data Protection Act (something we, the Information Commissioner and two Parliamentary committees have called for) are clearly troubling, but it would be far better to fix these shortcomings than to try and capture our entire media in a splurge of regulation. Quite how it would even work in an internet age is far from clear.
For those individuals in a public body selling information, there is the offence of misconduct in public office. Only a few weeks ago did a senior Metropolitan Police figure appear in court charged exactly with this offence after allegedly selling information to the News of The World.
Yes, we need to protect people’s privacy and personal information. To do that, you regulate how and when information is collected, and what happens to it after it is collected. Whether it is an insurance company checking out previous illnesses, a private investigator working on a divorce settlement or a journalist investigating which politicians are abusing their expenses, all of those situations require better protections of the data in the first place. To single out the journalist as a special case undermines the wider ambition to protect privacy and puts our media in a precarious position.
The only benefactors of such a state of affairs would be those who seek to abuse their power and avoid accountability. We must not allow this to happen.