George Eustice: Law can help raise press standards

Last week, the Leveson Inquiry turned to the relationship between politics and the media as Rupert Murdoch gave evidence.

George Eustice: Law can help raise press standards
George Eustice: Law can help raise press standards

There will be more to come in the months ahead, with both present and former prime ministers expected to be called before the inquiry.

There has been much speculation around Westminster that the Government's bad press since the Budget has been partly driven by the vengeance of newspaper proprietors and editors.

But, as the row surrounding Jeremy Hunt's role in the BSkyB bid demonstrated, this inquiry is likely to prove uncomfortable for politicians as well as the media.

However uncomfortable everyone might find it, the Leveson Inquiry is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the culture in our media and secure a better future for journalism. It is the best chance we have to arrest the terminal decline of newspapers. Journalists should see it as an opportunity, not a threat. It would be a tragedy if all the money, effort and, yes, discomfort were in vain and ended with nothing changing.

The worst excesses of the newspapers have stemmed from the fact that there has been a complete lack of clarity and consistency when it comes to defining and enforcing the public interest defence. All too often, the 'public interest' has meant what newspaper editors wanted it to mean and they confused what was in the public interest with what was interesting to the public.

The phone hacking scandal and the development of an illegal market in private information is a direct consequence of the absence of clear boundaries.

Broadcasters have a stronger definition of the public interest and, crucially, there is an independent statutory body in Ofcom to enforce it. To some, the suggestion of any statutory body for the press is anathema but the best investigative journalism we have in Britain is actually carried out by broadcasters.

Statutory regulation does not stop Watchdog using hidden cameras to expose rogues.

Unlike the broadcasters, I believe the press should always be free to be biased, but it is difficult to see how press standards can be raised without some form of support in law.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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