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Dangers in statutory regulation of the press

Lord Leveson's report into the ethics and standards of the British press will be published next Thursday.

By now the ink on it must be dry, so any comment is aimed principally at the political response.

It is 350 years since the passing of the Licensing of the Press Act for "preventing the frequent abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed bookes and pamphlets and for regulating of printing and printing presses" in England. In 1695, 88 years before The Glasgow Advertiser (the first incarnation of The Herald) hit the city's streets, that legislation was not renewed. Since that time, freedom of expression and freedom of the press have come to be regarded as fundamental to a properly functioning democracy.

The Leveson Inquiry was called in response to public disgust at the phone-hacking revelations at the now defunct News of the World. It was never our fight. The great majority of newspapers operate within the law. Nevertheless, The Herald has a keen interest in the right balance being struck between the right to privacy and the right to know and opposes heavy-handed prescription.

The supine response of the Press Complaints Commission to the phone-hacking scandal resulted in a loss of public trust. That is why, with reluctance, The Herald accepts the need for a new body with a greater degree of independence and more power to investigate wrong-doing and impose sanctions.

Innocent victims of monstrous intrusion into private grief need swift, effective and cheap redress. The new body should have less sympathy for celebrities who court publicity until they are caught misbehaving.

It is equally important that such a body is entirely independent of government because statutory restriction could be the thin end of a very dangerous wedge, especially in the hands of some future authoritarian government. Statutory regulation would merely provide a field day for the legal profession, at a time when the printed media is already struggling, and risks hampering legitimate journalistic investigations.

There is confusion around the issue of "public interest", with some suggestion that every story requires such a justification. How dull newspapers would be if this were the case. Only when a story risks breaking the law is such a test relevant.

The value of a free and plural press is obvious to those who have spent time in countries where neither pertains; in Russia where practically every title is owned by associates of Vladimir Putin or one-party states where newspapers are suspiciously full of smiling government ministers and statistics that only ever flatter the government.

The worst of all worlds would be a press cowed by the threat of a big stick as an ungovernable twittersphere continues to spread lies and innuendo.

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Local government

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