Speech

Society of Editors Conference 2014

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport delivers a robust defence of press freedom in the face of various threats

Good morning everyone.

Thank you for that warm welcome.

A few of my colleagues would be horrified at the thought of spending the morning trapped in a room full of journalists, still, it’s nice to feel wanted!

Though perhaps I should wait and see if you’re still applauding at the END of the speech…

Today, I want to talk about newspaper journalists. The hardworking, dedicated newsmen and women who have made the British press the great institution it is today.

People like you.

People like Doug.

And people like Bob Bennett.

Some of you might know Bob.

He spent most of his career tirelessly toiling in the regional press before setting up the Journalism Department at the University of Sheffield.

And Bob used to tell his students a little story – I like to think it’s true, but like all the best Fleet Street tales it may not be.

It’s a story about the council leader and the local reporter.

The councillor was increasingly outraged by the way the reporter wrote up his stories, and accused the journalist of distorting his opinions and twisting his words.

One day he finally snapped.

He stormed up to the reporter and angrily shouted: “Why do you take things out of context like that? Why don’t you just report everything I say?”

So the next week the reporter went along to the council meeting and, using his 120-words-a-minute Pitman, took a transcript of what went on.

And instead of using it to write a story, he simply filed a verbatim account of everything that was said.

And when I say “everything”, I mean everything.

Every “um”.

Every “err”.

Every half-formed thought that went nowhere.

Every joke that fell flat.

Every rambling sentence that petered out without really making a point.

Of course, this warts-and-all account didn’t make the council leader look like the eloquent, intelligent, Churchillian politician he thought himself to be.

So at the next council meeting, he stormed up to the reporter and angrily shouted: “Why did you just report everything I said?”

I think that sums up pretty well the relationship between politicians and the press.

We don’t always see eye-to-eye, we don’t always agree.

In fact some would say we rarely do!

But you know what?

That doesn’t bother me at all.

Because your job isn’t to make me look good.

I have civil servants for that!

And your job isn’t to tell me how wonderful I am. I have civil servants for that, too!

The press exists not to pander to the powerful, but to hold them to account.

And that applies whether they are Prime Ministers, business leaders, police officers or, yes, Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Do I have days where I don’t agree with what I read in the newspapers?

Of course.

Have there been times when I’ve looked at the headlines and despaired at the way you’re treating my friends, colleagues and predecessors?

Plenty.

But should I be allowed to interfere and dictate what it is you should be saying?

Never.

As George Orwell said, “freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose.”

It’s one of the fundamental liberties on which modern Britain was built.

There is no point in saying “I believe in freedom of the press, but…”

Either you believe in it, or you don’t.

It’s an absolute.

A zero sum concept.

But it’s one that’s increasingly under threat.

A handful of individuals have tainted the good name of British journalism.

Unaccountable European judges are trying to restrict media freedom.

Legislation created to tackle terrorism is being used to hamper and hinder legitimate reporting.

And together, these threats and others are combining to put our great history of fearless, favourless newspaper journalism at risk.

In this country we have long recognised that freedom of the press is not something bestowed by the government or permitted by an Act of Parliament.

It is, as John Wilkes observed back in 1762, “the birthright of a Briton”.

That’s why newspaper licenses were abolished more than 300 years ago.

That’s why newspaper stamp duty was scrapped in 1855.

That’s why, for centuries, democracies old and new have been inspired by our traditions and claimed Britain’s sacred freedoms for their own.

Just look at the United States.

Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center is completely open about how the Founding Fathers were influenced by Magna Carta, the Agreement of the People and the 1689 Bill of Rights.

Schoolchildren across the country study the work of Thomas Paine and John Locke.

And Supreme Court justices freely quote the likes of Lilburne and Milton in their opinions and judgements.

We have a glorious history of press freedom.

And defending it isn’t a matter of Right and Left, but of right and wrong.

One morning last month I saw almost identical arguments being made by Mick Hume, who is practically a card-carrying Communist, and Fraser Nelson, who is…

Well…

NOT practically a card-carrying Communist…

Both were speaking up for free expression.

The Guardian and Daily Mail have very little in common, yet Alan Rusbridger and Paul Dacre have found common cause when it comes to protecting the rights of journalists.

And I find myself, the arch-Thatcherite, agreeing with Tony Blair’s mentor Lord Falconer when he says that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is being used in a manner for which it was never intended.

The right to keep sources anonymous is the bedrock of investigative journalism.

Without it, you cannot do your jobs.

Without it, the corrupt and the crooked sleep easier in their beds.

It’s a sacrosanct principle and one that the authorities need a damn good reason to interfere with.

RIPA was passed to help with the fight against serious criminal wrongdoing.

Not to impede fair and legitimate journalism, no matter how awkward that journalism may be for police officers and local councils.

The legislation should never be used to spy on reporters and whistle-blowers who are going about their lawful, vital, business.

I know Theresa May is doing what she can to stop this happening.

As the Secretary of State responsible for the media, I’ll be making sure the Home Office knows just how important this issue is for the industry.

And I’ll be watching closely to ensure the Act is not misused in future.

Of course, RIPA is not the only threat currently facing Britain’s journalists.

Since Luxembourg’s unelected judges created the so-called “right to be forgotten”, Google has been receiving a demand for deletion every 90 seconds.

Each day, a thousand requests pour in from people who, for one reason or another, would prefer their pasts to be kept secret.

Criminals are having their convictions airbrushed from history even if they have since committed other, similar crimes.

Terrorists have ordered Google to cover up stories about their trials.

The search engine’s own lawyer has warned of unscrupulous companies abusing the system so that links to their competitors are hidden.

The “right to be forgotten” is censorship by the back door.

Stories are not being deleted from archives because of the ruling, but if they cannot be found by the search engines they may as well not be there at all.

The problems don’t end there.

In the summer of 1949, the horrors of the Nazi regime were still fresh in our minds.

The world was looking on helplessly as Stalin tightened his grip on Eastern Europe.

And in that atmosphere, David Maxwell-Fyfe led the drafting of what he called “a beacon to the peoples behind the Iron Curtain” – The European Convention on Human Rights.

Maxwell-Fyfe’s goals were noble. But today, they stand corrupted.

Article Eight, protecting the right to privacy, was created to fend off the threat of secret police conducting arbitrary searches for totalitarian regimes.

But in 2014 it is little more than an excuse for well-paid lawyers to hide the shady pasts of wealthy businessmen and the sexual indiscretions of sporting celebrities.

That people are being allowed to do so in the name of human rights shows how far from Maxwell-Fyfe’s intentions the idea has drifted.

That’s why, if we receive a majority at the next election, a Conservative government will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and deliver a new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

Passed in our Parliament and rooted in our values it will restore British judges as the ultimate arbiters of British justice.

And today I’m delighted to announce that I have agreed with the Justice Secretary that the British Bill of Rights will include specific protection for journalists and a free press. The Human Rights Act and the European courts have not done enough to protect journalists who play such a unique role in our society.

Our British Bill of Rights will change that.

The way some people and organisations have used RIPA and the European courts represent a direct assault on press freedom.

Other threats are more insidious.

Local newspapers have long played a vital role in British life.

They’re a crucial, trusted part of our democracy.

They do a huge amount of good work in their communities.

And they have proved to be a fantastic training ground for generations of reporters in the national press.

If I were to take a show of hands, I suspect the vast majority of people in this room will have cut their teeth as a cub reporter in a local newsroom.

My constituency, Bromsgrove, is privileged to be served by two excellent papers, the Advertiser and the Standard.

It’s hard to imagine life in the town without them.

And right now, papers like these have a more important role than ever.

This government is working hard to give power back to the people of Britain.

In everything from planning to education, we believe that big decisions should be made by the communities they affect, not by bureaucrats in Whitehall.

As decision-making becomes more localised, so the need for local press scrutiny increases too.

Yet far from being strengthened by this devolution of power, regional reporters have found themselves under attack from the very people they are trying to hold to account. Local authorities have every right to communicate with their taxpayers.

They have no business getting involved in the newspaper industry.

But across the country, the rise of the “Town-hall Pravdas” under the Labour Government threatened to pull the advertising rug out from under dozens of genuine publishers with unfair, state-funded competition.

This government is not prepared to stand by and let that happen.

My colleague Eric Pickles has strengthened the law on local government publicity rules, slashing the number of these pointless publications.

His department is currently fighting to finish off the final few hold-outs.

He has also introduced new legal rights for the press and public to report and film council meetings with digital media.

But the law’s remit only extends to England.

Town halls in Labour-run Wales are still wasting a million pounds of taxpayers’ money on propaganda sheets every year. And how did that figure come to light?

Thanks to a series of FoI requests put in by hard-working regional journalists!

Meanwhile, bloggers and journalists in Wales have even been arrested and handcuffed for trying to tweet or film council meetings.

As Lord Black said recently, “If we value democracy then we have to value a commercially successful free press”.

We can’t have one without the other, and that applies on the local stage as much as the national.

It also applies on the internet.

The explosive growth of the internet has created many challenges for newspaper publishers.

However, it has also brought with it incredible opportunities. Two of the world’s most successful digital newspapers are both UK-based.

But if you’re going to invest in world-class content, you have to know that it’s going to be properly protected by an appropriate and enforceable copyright regime.

I’ve been very clear about this government’s determination to protect the music industry from online infringement.

That applies to the written word too.

Quality journalism costs money, and we cannot allow it to be copied and pasted into oblivion.

Fair use, yes, but not a free-for-all.

I’m sure many of you would say that this problem isn’t confined to content-scrapers and unscrupulous publishers.

Some point fingers at the BBC, accusing it of over-relying on news broken by local papers.

Adrian Jeakings has even suggested that the Corporation should pay for stories that originate in the regional press.

Part of the problem is that newspapers and broadcasters now find themselves competing on a whole new playing field.

For decades, the BBC and its commercial rivals dealt only in television and radio, while editors such as yourselves were concerned solely with words on newsprint.

But as news moves online, local newspapers with five or even four-figure circulations have found themselves going head to head with one of the world’s biggest broadcasters.

In Bromsgrove, The Advertiser and the Standard are now competing for readers with BBC Hereford & Worcester.

Not viewers, not listeners, but readers.

This summer Ofcom reported that almost 60 per cent of online news consumers use the BBC website or app, with Sky News trailing behind on just 17 per cent. The lead is even greater on mobile devices, where BBC News has 14.5 million unique users, compared to just 4.2 million for second-placed Sky News.

The highest-ranked newspaper, the Mail, is third with 3.4 million.

This digital dominance looks set to be cemented as this generation grows up.

Most adults aged under 24 already head to the internet – rather than TV, radio or print – for their fix of news.

And that may present some serious problems for regional publications, particularly as local news junkies are increasingly searching for content online.

As with so many of the changes brought about by the internet, it raises a lot of questions.

Is it healthy for a publicly funded broadcaster to compete with commercial newspapers?

Should the BBC share its local public service content under a creative commons licence?

I want the BBC to come forward with ambitious, innovative ideas that enrich and support sectors like local journalism.

A former foreign correspondent once wrote that “You cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences.

“You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns.”

Actually that was Karl Marx…

It’s not often you’ll find me quoting the father of Communism.

But as I said, this is a cause that brings together some strange bedfellows.

And on this issue, Karl and I are definitely fellow travellers.

There’s your headline for tomorrow – “Saj is a closet Marxist”!

Yes the, rose of the free press has some thorns. I’m not naïve enough to think that all reporters are towering beacons of integrity.

Noble professionals who speak only the truth.

The descendants of Grub Street have produced some truly grubby journalism lately.

Christopher Jefferies is still rightly appalled at the way he was treated.

The attacks on the McCann family by some sections of the press were as unjustified as they were offensive.

And the conduct of some senior staff at the News of the World was, to quote the title of Peter Jukes’ book on the subject, beyond contempt.

But for every reporter or editor who has gone too far, there are countless more examples of good journalism done well.

Just in the past few years British newspapers have exposed cricketers fixing test matches, MPs and Lords fiddling expenses and, yes, other newspapers illegally hacking phones.

So when I look out from this stage, I don’t see a pack of feral beasts.

I see hardworking, highly-skilled individuals who, time and again, help to change the world for the better.

That’s what British newspapers are all about.

Over a 16 year period, at least 1,400 children in Rotherham were subjected to appalling and systematic physical and sexual abuse.

Some were as young as 11.

The horror of the situation was matched only by the inaction of the authorities, who so abjectly failed in their duty to protect the young people involved.

When the full scale of the abuse was finally revealed, it was because of the work of man named Andrew Norfolk.

But Andrew’s not a policeman or a social worker. He’s an “old-school, shoe-leather reporter”, and the individual who did more than anyone else to nudge the scandal out of the shadows and into the full glare of public scrutiny.

Because of Andrew’s work, negligence has been exposed.

Individuals who could have done more have resigned or been removed.

Systems have been changed, and the likelihood of other children being forced to suffer in silence has been greatly reduced.

That’s what British newspapers are all about.

Race after race, year after year, Lance Armstrong cheated his way to fame and fortune with the most sophisticated and successful doping program in history.

Cycling closed ranks, refusing to admit that the hero of the sport’s “greatest comeback” could actually be the perpetrator of its “greatest fraud”.

But for 13 years David Walsh and the Sunday Times repeatedly stood up to question the myth.

They tenaciously worked on the story, chasing down the facts, constructing the case, building the pressure.

And eventually the dam broke, and the sporting world experienced the most the extraordinary confession it has ever seen. I know David Walsh has complained that his quest for the truth was hampered by Britain’s libel laws.

The new Defamation Act, which was welcomed by the Society of Editors and took effect this year, was passed to help address these concerns.

Replacing legislation that had been on the statute books as far back as 1891, it includes a stronger public interest defence and new protections against libel tourism.

It’s designed to help reporters like David crack more cases like this.

Because as he said in this year’s Cudlipp Lecture, “A good story is always worth pursuing”.

That’s what British newspapers are all about.

Stephen Lawrence was a promising young student with ambitions of becoming an architect when he was brutally murdered by a racist gang.

For far too long Stephen’s family were badly let down by a system that was unable or unwilling to properly investigate the crime.

Yet as I stand here today two men are behind bars, serving life sentences for their appalling actions.

A public inquiry has been held, laws have been changed.

And why has all this happened? Because the Daily Mail refused to let the Lawrence family stand alone.

Because a team of talented journalists and editors did all they could to help bring Stephen’s killers to justice.

Not just the famous front page of 14 February 1997 – although Baroness Lawrence has called it the “turning point” in her family’s long campaign.

But the 15 years of investigations, revelations and exposés that followed, keeping the case firmly in the public and political spotlight.

Doing so took courage, dedication and no small measure of journalistic skill.

And THAT, ladies and gentleman, is what British newspapers are all about.

At their best, British newspaper journalists are simply without equal.

And that’s why you are the right people – the only people – to take the lead on developing and enforcing a new set of press standards.

The courts already have the power to punish journalists who commit illegal acts.

Whether it’s contempt of court, defamation or phone-hacking, many laws exist to protect the public – and nobody is above the law.

But we should not confuse or conflate criminal misconduct with bad journalistic practice.

Unethical or inaccurate reporting should be policed not by the state but by an industry-led regulatory system.

A system that ensures standards are upheld, complaints are heard, and there is proper redress for those who have been wronged.

All of us – friends and critics of the industry alike – could see that the Press Complaints Commission was no longer delivering such a system.

But let me be very clear.

This government has absolutely no intention of imposing any form of state-controlled regulation of the press.

No government ever should. The process must be industry-led, with no opportunity for politicians, present or future, to interfere with legitimate journalistic practice.

As the Prime Minister said, doing otherwise would cross the Rubicon, putting at risk our centuries-old tradition of free expression.

As my unlikely ally Mick Hume wrote last month, “If you invite the authorities to police journalism, don’t be surprised to find them ‘supporting’ a free press as a rope supports a hanging man.”

The public, with good cause, continue to be outraged by tales of phone hacking and tabloid corruption. But if we were to use the inexcusable actions of the few as an excuse to shackle the many, what then? How would we explain ourselves to the rest of the world?

What would we say to the children of Anna Politkovskaya, their mother gunned down for daring to report the facts about Putin’s Russia?

What would we say to Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, languishing in an Egyptian jail for no greater crime than doing their job?

What would we say to John Cantlie, who returned to Syria after being kidnapped once only to be seized again while trying to document the brutality of life under Assad?

And what would we say to our own children and grandchildren when, a generation from now, they ask us why newspapers no longer feel safe printing inconvenient truths?

Today we’re enjoying a relaxing morning in a warm, comfortable hotel.

But as we sit here in Southampton, British newspaper reporters and photographers are selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way in every corner of the world.

They’re reporting from the frontline of the battle against Ebola, risking infection so they can share the true horror of what is unfolding in West Africa.

They’re dodging bullets in Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Middle East. They’re avoiding arbitrary arrest and imprisonment while shining a light on shadowy regimes.

And, perhaps most shocking of all, they are facing the horrendous threat of kidnap and murder posed by the evil thugs who call themselves Islamic State.

So I have no time for those who seek to dismiss Fleet Street’s finest as corrupt criminals who should be regulated out of existence by an overbearing state.

Britain’s newspapers remain the best in the world.

A vital bulwark against wrongdoing.

A voice for the voiceless.

The very foundation upon which our democracy stands.

And when I’m asked if their work should be hindered and restricted by meddling bureaucrats and politicians who wouldn’t know a spike from a stone sub, my answer is very simple.

Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.