Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has called for statutory backing of a reformed press regulator, while making the case for protecting press freedom.
Clegg told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that public confidence needed to be restored in the British press following the phone hacking scandal, but said a solution could “work in parallel”, noting that reforms to press regulation should be “balanced against those enshrining the freedom of the press and the ability of journalists to go after the truth without fear or impediment.”
“A little tweak here and there of a fundamentally flawed model is not going to solve this,” Clegg said, adding later that the recommendations Lord Justice Leveson is due to make in the autumn must lead to change that would celebrate and protect press freedom rather than denigrate it.
The Lib Dem leader said a statutory role should be in the “background” of any regulatory reforms, suggesting statute could play a part in incentivising or cajoling media groups to join into a reformed regulator.
Clegg said he had not yet seen a “convincing case for independent, voluntary regulation of the press” be made, referring to the Irish model as a “fascinating” example.
He made a strong case for supplementing regulatory reform with a stronger definition of the public interest to help guide and protect reporters. “If the press has confidence in a public interest that protects them,” Clegg said, it would “allow them to be a bit more comfortable with the unavoidable reforms of being held to account that they are anxious about.”
While he admitted that a “chilling effect” on press freedom would mean the country would be “losing something very precious”, he branded the claim — as alluded to by education secretary Michael Gove — that the Inquiry is chilling journalists as “preposterous”.
Despite asking his party to abstain on a vote in the Commons today over the future of Jeremy Hunt, Clegg defended the culture secretary’s handling of the £8bn BSkyB bid, arguing that Hunt had given the Inquiry a “full, good and convincing” account of how he handled the bid for the takeover of the satellite broadcaster.
Yet, reminiscent of business secretary Vince Cable’s claim that “veiled threats” had been made to the Lib Dems in connection with News Corp’s takeover bid, Clegg told the Inquiry that his colleague Norman Lamb had told him he had been warned that the party could expect “unfavourable treatment” from the Murdoch papers if they were not open to the bid.
“Norman was quite agitated about that”, Clegg said.
The Inquiry continues this afternoon with evidence from Scottish first minister Alex Salmond.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson