THE BLOG

Though Huge Threats Remain, I Hope That We Are Turning a Corner on Press Freedom

12/06/2014 15:49 BST | Updated 12/08/2014 10:59 BST

This blog is a transcript of Lord Black's speech delivered before the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA) in Italy this week

It is - I regret to say - a few years since I was last at the World Newspaper Congress. Returning to this hugely important event for our industry has inevitably caused me to try to put the issues of press freedom and self regulation - which have dominated my career - into some sort of perspective.

When I was last at here in 2002 I was able to give an excellent report on the state of freedom of expression in the United Kingdom. There were challenges of course - there always are - but in the main the press was free from Governmental and judicial control or pressure, there was a strong system of self regulation through the Press Complaints Commission, and the UK was able to play its full and rightful role in encouraging freedom of speech and expression in the developing world, and in particular in the Commonwealth.

The Press Complaints Commission itself had been able to assist with the establishment of self regulatory systems across the globe. Here in Europe the Press Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina had just got underway with expertise from the PCC. The seeds of effective self-regulation as a bulwark against state imposed controls had been sown - mostly with the active help of the Commonwealth Press Union - in Sri Lanka, Ghana, Pakistan, Bermuda and Jamaica.

Well, how times have changed! A decade on, and the British press has been under severe, sustained and prolonged attack for the last three years.

Parts of the press have been subjected to the biggest criminal investigation in British police history - bigger even than the investigation into the bombing at Lockerbie.

Dozens of journalists have been arrested over allegations of phone hacking, some of them put through the ignominy of dawn raids - often with 80 police officers in attendance - that would shame a Government such as Zimbabwe. In some cases the police have used anti-terrorist legislation - with no defence of public interest - to make arrests; in other cases laws which are over a century old are being used against the trade of journalism despite the fact that this was never the purpose for which they were intended.

The whole of the British press - despite the fact that 95% of it was never involved in the hacking of phones which led to this crackdown - was subjected to a judicial inquiry with draconian powers, greater than those handed to the Chilcot Inquiry which is looking into the war in Iraq in which 100,000 people died.

Legislation has been passed singling the press out for special punishment in libel and privacy cases if it is not part of a state-recognised regulator, an action in clear contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.

A Royal Charter on press regulation has established an embryonic state licensing system for the first time since we last abolished state press control in 1695, putting us on a par with countries like Egypt.

And judicial activism, along with the ruthless way that celebrities use their money to take advantage of the law, has led to the establishment of a fully-fledged privacy law arising from the Human Rights Act and during the course of the last few years the increasing use of so-called "super injunctions" to gag the press.

In short, the press has been subject to the full force of the state's panoply of powers. We have gone from hero to zero.

Not only has this been hugely dangerous for the press in Britain, it has robbed us of all moral authority to be able to try to help countries battling authoritarianism in establishing a free press. Where once we were able to draw on our long liberal history of protecting free speech and use our experience to do what we could to support freedom of expression "everywhere in the world" - the fourth of Roosevelt's four fundamental freedoms - now we are cited as a shining example by those who want to shackle the free press. The comments of President Rafael Correa of Ecuador should make the authors of the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter hang their heads in shame. "Foreign countries show that Ecuador is right," said the defender of some of Latin America's most repressive media laws. "The UK has created a communication law to regulate the excesses of a certain yellow press in that country."

As Chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union, I am particularly concerned about what in many ways is a deteriorating position with regard to press freedom in the Commonwealth following the lead from the Leveson Inquiry in proposing statutory press controls.

Already there are ominous signs of threats to self regulation in a number of countries including South Africa, as well as more direct assaults in Bangladesh, Cameroon, The Gambia and Uganda. In Sri Lanka the Leveson report is privately cited as having prompted a Government proposal to impose a harsh statutory code on the press.

In many developing countries, this new excuse for Government interference in the free press is being mixed both with outdated and repressive legislation - most notably criminal libel - and much newer laws that were introduced after the atrocities of 9/11 to limit media freedom in the name of national security. Together they are producing a poisonous cocktail of state controls on the press. It is an unacceptable state of affairs.

But it is not all doom and gloom. While the situation remains very dangerous for press freedom in Britain, I believe there is some light on the horizon. The UK newspaper industry has remained united and strong throughout this assault, and has already established a new self-regulatory body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (or Ipso), to replace the Press Complaints Commission. Ipso - which should begin work in September - will provide an independent, effective and tough system of regulation for UK newspapers and magazines which we will argue will make unnecessary the need for any further laws.

And the Royal Charter on press regulation has so far run into the sand, with the Government unable to find anyone to chair its Recognition Body. The industry remains wholly opposed to it, and has been challenging it in the Courts. If necessary, because the stakes are so high, it is a battle we will take to Strasbourg which has a much stronger track record of protecting freedom of expression than the British Courts.

So although huge threats remain, I hope that we are turning the corner in a way that will also allow us to look afresh at some of the other pressing challenges to press freedom away from the UK.

For the are many issues that should concern us here in Europe where, of course, only last year the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism produced a report calling for the EU to be given powers to regulate national media councils - a sort of "Euro-Leveson".

They also called for those Councils to have the power to "remove journalistic status", something which would have required the introduction of licensing systems across Europe. Although the report has largely been shelved, it revealed all too clearly an EU mind-set which places little value on the commercial media which is at the heart of pluralism and believes that only publicly-funded broadcasters are able to protect the public interest.

That is important because of the way it will influence the EU legislative programme in the new Parliament. Of particular concern to us all should be the review of the Data Protection Directive. Of course, all EU countries need robust data protection laws to protect individual privacy - but experience in the UK and elsewhere has shown that these can be abused to crack down on legitimate journalism and in particular produce a profound chilling impact on investigative reporting. The decision by the European Parliament in February to remove journalistic exemptions from the new Directive - something which has been vital to protecting press freedom in the UK - is, I believe, extremely worrying and will cause real problems as Member States seek eventually to enshrine it in law.

And European publishers face similar threats in so many other areas. Some of them are commercial, where there continues to be pressure to produce ever tighter restrictions on advertising, at a time when all publishers are facing incredibly harsh trading conditions, as well as reviews of VAT status. And many of them are editorial including copyright, the ongoing review of the Audio Visual Media Services Directive where there are scarcely-veiled attempts to pull the independent media sector under the regulatory scope of the Directive and of course the so-called "right to be forgotten" following the recent European Court ruling, something which could have profound long-term consequences for freedom of expression.

All these are extremely serious issues, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribue to the work of Ivar Rusdal and Francine Cunningham, and their team at ENPA, who do so much to fight for the media's interests in Brussels and Strasbourg.

So the agenda - in my own country, in Europe - particularly with a new Commission and Parliament - and throughout the wider world - is a very full and very dangerous one.

The work of WAN-IFRA - which has already played such an important role in warning the rest of the world against the toxic Leveson legacy - and others including the admirable work of the World Press Freedom Committee is therefore as crucial as ever. And I, the Telegraph Media Group and other newspaper publishers in the UK, continue to be proud to do what we can to support its campaigning. We are, as always, stronger together.

Lord Black of Brentwood is Executive Director of the Telegraph Media Group. Previously he was Press Secretary to Michael Howard when Leader of the Opposition and is a former Director of the Press Complaints Commission