‘Err on side of freedom’ says William Hague, as Leveson set to deliver press ethics verdict

Foreign Secretary William Hague. Picture: Reuters
Foreign Secretary William Hague. Picture: Reuters
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FUTURE regulation of the press should “err on the side of freedom”, William Hague has warned, before Lord Justice Leveson’s eagerly anticipated reform proposals this week.

• Leveson Inquiry: Key proposals for newspaper regulation

• Leveson inquiry: Your questions answered

The Foreign Secretary said he was a “big supporter of press freedom” but stressed that he wanted to read the Leveson report before giving a verdict on it.

He dismissed suggestions that Prime Minister David Cameron had already made up his mind to reject state regulation, pointing out that “none of us” had yet seen Lord Leveson’s recommendations, which are to be published on Thursday.

“Although I’m a big supporter of freedom of the press, I’m also a big supporter of actually reading something before you pronounce on it,” he said yesterday.

“We will have to do that, but, in my case, from the philosophical viewpoint that you have to err on the side of freedom.”

Downing Street said Mr Cameron would make no decisions before he had seen the report arising from the Leveson Inquiry, which he set up in the wake of last year’s phone-
hacking scandal.

It was reported yesterday that the Prime Minister would back a tougher model of self-regulation to replace the Press Complaints Commission, but with the threat that a statutory system could be brought in if matters do not improve.

Number 10 played down any suggestion that the Prime Minister had already made up his mind on the Leveson report.

“The Prime Minister is open-minded about Lord Justice Leveson’s report and will read it in full before he makes any decision about what to do,” a spokesman said.

Mr Cameron and some other senior government figures will have access to it on Wednesday so that he can make a substantive response when it is released.He faces a dilemma balancing the demands of victims of press intrusion for tighter controls without alienating media and even members of his own 
Cabinet who have signalled their opposition to statutory regulation.

Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Chancellor George Osborne have all indicated their reluctance to support a statutory solution.

Tory mayor of London Boris Johnson warned against a move towards having newspapers “controlled by politicians”.

Mr Johnson said: “Everybody will have to listen to what Judge Leveson has to say and take it seriously and make sure that if they possibly can have a better system of regulation they should jolly well set that up, there’s no doubt about it.”

He went on: “The present system has obviously failed, doesn’t carry confidence amongst the public at large.

“There needs to be a tougher system of self-regulation. Where I think we don’t want to go is in the direction of a media that is controlled by politicians.”

The Conservative Party is divided on the issue of press regulation – 42 Tory MPs signed a letter this month calling for the door to be kept open on some kind of statutory regulation.

But Tory MP Conor Burns said that there would be another letter this week signed by even more Conservatives that would urge self-regulation.

Mr Burns, a member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: “The party is actually a little bit divided on this.

“There is a letter coming this week in which more than 42 colleagues are saying we should try and do this on the basis of common agreement and self-regulation – but on a much more robust footing – without taking away the prospect of statutory regulation, the threat of statutory regulation, if it doesn’t work.”