British Lawmakers Join Fierce Debate on Press Controls

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On the eve of a major report into Britain's phone hacking scandal that editors and reporters fear could lead to statutory regulation of the press, a group of more than 80 British lawmakers on Wednesday opened a defense of press freedom, which, they said, would be undermined by new laws enforcing controls on newspapers.

"As parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning," the multiparty group of 86 legislators from both houses of Parliament said in a letter published in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph.

The letter appeared hours before Prime Minister David Cameron received his personal copy of the report, based on months of hearings conducted by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, into widespread phone hacking, primarily by Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper subsidiary. The document is to be made public on Thursday, and is likely to stoke a furious debate within the divided political elite about the future of press controls, which are currently based on loose self-regulation that many lawmakers maintain has been ineffective, reinforced by some of the West's toughest libel laws.

The argument cuts across party lines, as did the letter from lawmakers on Wednesday, signed by a majority of Mr. Cameron's Conservatives but also including figures from the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partner and from the opposition Labour Party. It followed an earlier statement by 42 Conservative lawmakers urging the drafting of new laws to control newspapers.

"This government set up Leveson because of unacceptable practices in parts of the media and because of a failed regulatory system," Mr. Cameron told Parliament on Wednesday, referring to the Leveson inquiry. His remarks seemed intended to balance the many arguments likely to be set off by the report -- between the government and the opposition, within the coalition government itself and with advocacy groups pressing for much tighter statutory control.

"I think we should try and work across party lines on this issue," Mr. Cameron said. "It is right to meet with other party leaders about this issue, and I will do so. What matters most, I believe, is that we end up with an independent regulatory system that can deliver and in which the public have confidence."

In their letter on Wednesday, the lawmakers said no form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing, which  was abolished in Britain in 1695. "State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution," it said.

"There are also serious concerns that statutory regulation of the print media may shift the balance to the digital platforms, which, as recent events have shown through the fiasco of 'Newsnight'-Twitter, would further undermine the position of properly moderated and edited print journalism," the letter said.

It was referring to a separate matter, in which the BBC's flagship "Newsnight" current affairs program wrongly implicated a former Conservative politician in sexual abuse and his identity was then widely hinted at in Twitter feeds. The BBC scandal unfolded separately from the months of hearings at the Leveson inquiry into the practices of the British press.

"The press abuse chronicled at Leveson was almost wholly about actions which were against the law," the lawmakers said. "It demonstrated not a sole failure of regulation but rather of law enforcement. However, the status quo is not an option. We cannot countenance newspapers behaving as some have in the past. The solution is not new laws but a profound restructuring of the self-regulatory system."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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