Culture Secretary: Press Freedom is ‘Not Something Bestowed by Government’

Sajid Javid has launched a defence of press freedom describing it as a “zero sum concept” which is “increasingly under threat” from unaccountable European judges and legislation aimed at tackling terrorism.

In a wide ranging speech at the Society of Editors Conference in Southampton this week, the Culture Secretary said press freedom was “one of the fundamental liberties on which modern Britain was built” and “not something bestowed by the government or permitted by an Act of Parliament.”

Mr Javid said: “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.

“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.

Mr Javid continued: “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.”

Mr Javid said Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislation “should never be used to spy on reporters and whistle-blowers” adding: “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.”

Mr Javid went on to list other threats to the industry such as the so-called “right to be forgotten” European ruling which he described as “censorship by the back door”, going on to list other “more insidious” threats such as council newspapers

He said: “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. 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.

Speaking about the copyright regime, Mr Javid said: “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.”

Speaking about the BBC, Mr Javid questioned whether iot was “healthy for a publicly funded broadcaster to compete with commercial newspapers” and asked whether the BBC should share its local public service content under a creative commons licence.

Mr Javid cited examples of powerful newspaper journalism such as The Times’ Rotherham revelations, The Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses scandal and the Daily Mail’s work on the Stephen Lawrence case.

Talking about the press regulation, Mr Javid said: ““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.

“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.”