Gerry and Kate McCann, Christopher Jefferies and other victims of phone hacking and press intrusion have urged Theresa May to back fresh moves to tighten up media regulation.
In an open letter to the PM, published on HuffPost UK, more than 30 high profile campaigners say that the Prime Minister should not block a Parliamentary plan to make it easier to take newspapers to court – and should complete a public inquiry into journalistic abuses.
Labour and cross-party amendments to the Data Protection Bill on Wednesday seek to cut costs of litigation, as well as commit the Government to completing ‘Stage Two’ of the Leveson inquiry into media misconduct.
One move, proposed by deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, would compel newspapers to pay legal bills even in cases that they win against complainants.
An amendment by Tory Ken Clarke and former Labour leader Ed Miliband would force May to follow through on chairman Sir Brian Leveson’s plans to examine relations between the press and police.
Downing Street revealed on Tuesday that May had told her weekly Cabinet meeting that the proposed changes would “undermine our free press”.
But in their letter, press regulation campaigners say that failure to act would mean a betrayal of the “categorical promises” made by David Cameron to create a more independent and effective system of self-regulation of the press.
“We are all disappointed and angered by your decision to surrender to powerful corporate media interests by cancelling Part Two of the Inquiry and seeking repeal of Parliament’s costs-shifting measures,” they write.
Among the signatories are: the McCanns, who have complained about their treatment since their daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal in 2007; Chris Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of murdering Joanna Yates; 7/7 terror attack victim John Tulloch whose medical records were blagged; Sheryl Gascoigne, fomer wife of footballer Paul; and Margaret Aspinall and Sue Roberts of the Hillsborough Family Support Group.
The victims added that far from being ‘backward looking’, as suggested by Culture Secretary Matt Hancock, a new stage of the inquiry could take in new allegations made by the Sunday Times whistleblower John Ford, as well as from civil cases against the Mirror and The Sun.
“We can think of no other area of public or corporate life in which the government would collude in covering up allegations of shocking unethical behaviour while those responsible remain in post,” the letter states.
“The public remains fully behind the Leveson proposals and completion of his inquiry. Tomorrow in the Data Protection Bill MPs will have a chance to decide whether the wish of the public and the promises to victims are delivered, or abandoned in favour of capitulating to a handful of newspaper executives and proprietors.
“We will be writing to all MPs to urge them to keep their word and support the Leveson amendments. We hope you will not stand in their way.”
When the Government announced earlier this year it was abandoning the Leveson timetable, Lord Leveson suggested ministers were breaking promises to victims.
“I have no doubt that there is still a legitimate expectation on behalf of the public and, in particular, the alleged victims of phone hacking and other unlawful conduct, that there will be a full public examination of the circumstances that allowed that behaviour to develop,” he wrote. “That is what they were promised.”
Labour’s Watson argues that the priority is to improve “access to justice for victims” and to ensure abuses like phone hacking never happens again.
However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman pointed out that cancelling the Leveson inquiry’s next stage was in the Tory manifesto in 2017.
“Almost £50m of public money has already been spent on investigating phone-hacking, and establishing a further public inquiry requiring great time and expense is not a proportionate solution to allegations which have already been the subject of several extensive police investigations or ongoing investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
“The Prime Minister said the Government remains committed to a voluntary system of independent press self-regulation.”
He added: “The Prime Minister said many would consider it against natural justice that, even if a newspaper was found not to be at fault, they could still end up having to pay costs.”
The letter in full:
Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing as victims of press abuse, some of whom received categorical promises from your predecessor David Cameron. Several of us gave evidence to Part One of the Leveson Inquiry. Others have suffered at the hands of the press subsequent to that inquiry.
We are all disappointed and angered by your decision to surrender to powerful corporate media interests by cancelling Part Two of the Inquiry and seeking repeal of Parliament’s costs-shifting measures.
In 2013, following a historic cross-party agreement, Parliament agreed to introduce the key recommendations of Sir Brian Leveson for independent and effective self-regulation of the press. After decades of press policy being dictated by unaccountable newspaper proprietors, this was the moment that Parliament asserted its sovereignty and spoke up for ordinary people against the powerful.
Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry
In his letter to Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock, Sir Brian Leveson was clear that the Second Part of the Inquiry should proceed. It is supported by free speech charities such as Article 19 and by the National Union of Journalists. It was promised to victims of press abuse and to the public as a means of uncovering the full scale of systematic wrongdoing by senior newspaper executives.
In announcing cancellation of the Inquiry, Matt Hancock suggested that Part Two would be “backward-looking”. In fact, new allegations have now emerged from the Sunday Times whistle- blower John Ford, as well as from civil cases against the Mirror and The Sun. We can think of no other area of public or corporate life in which the government would collude in covering up allegations of shocking unethical behaviour while those responsible remain in post.
Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013
Parliament’s costs-shifting provision has been on the statute book for over five years, and is central to making the system work. It provides access to justice for victims of unlawful press behaviour, while also protecting smaller publishers from wealthy and powerful litigants. Parliament was unequivocal, voting for it by 530 votes to 13. Yet the Government has refused to bring it into force.
Your decision to seek repeal will not only disadvantage ordinary people who cannot afford to take on powerful and wealthy publishers, but will also prejudice the interests of many local publishers who have sought protection for their investigative journalism by joining an independent, recognised regulator. Your government’s action will leave them vulnerable to expensive litigation.
The public remains fully behind the Leveson proposals and completion of his inquiry. Tomorrow in the Data Protection Bill MPs will have a chance to decide whether the wish of the public and the promises to victims are delivered, or abandoned in favour of capitulating to a handful of newspaper executives and proprietors. We will be writing to all MPs to urge them to keep their word and support the Leveson amendments. We hope you will not stand in their way.
Gerry and Kate McCann
Margaret and James Watson
Sheila and Martin Hollins