Lord Black: Royal Charter for Press Regulation Brings Shame on UK  

Lord Black of Brentwood told journalists from across the Commonwealth that attempts to introduce state oversight of the press in the UK through a Royal Charter had  “brought shame on a country” regarded by journalists as a “beacon of free speech.”

Speaking to the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association conference entitled ‘The Future of Journalism in the Digital Age’ Lord Black, chair of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, said that press freedom across the Commonwealth was in decline.

Lord Black said: “I simply can’t even pretend to understand how difficult it must be to be a reporter in a country where intimidation is rife and Governments use the full force of the criminal law to stop you reporting and sometimes jail you for telling the truth. But that happens in a growing number of places.”

Lord Black said that although Jamaica, Canada and New Zealand were “shining examples” of press freedom the media in Uganda, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and The Gambia, was tightly controlled through a mix of law designed to crack down on free speech and the threat of physical violence against journalists.

Lord Black continued: “As I chronicle all these global media freedom challenges, I am all too painfully aware that all is not well in my own back yard – and conscious that some of you may be thinking: “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks.” Because here in the United Kingdom – a country which has done more than any other to prove the value to democracy of a diverse and vigilant free press – we have seen a sinister, clear and present danger to press freedom in the last few years.”

Lord Black said the Royal Charter for press regulation introduced after the Leveson Inquiry amounted to state oversight of newspaper regulation, ending more than three hundred years of press freedom in the UK.

Lord Black continued: “The newspaper industry in my country is vigorously and robustly opposed to this system of state-backed regulation, which we believe is an unacceptable incursion into press freedom. And not one newspaper has agreed to sign up to it. For us, it has brought shame on a country that many journalists elsewhere in the world struggling against censorship and intimidation had been accustomed to regarding as a beacon of free speech.”

“International NGOs and media organisations have rightly been highly critical of what has happened here, which – chillingly – is being used an excuse in many other parts of the world to introduce new, repressive laws.”

Lord Black listed four measures to combat the decline in press freedom; an end to unnecessarily harsh criminal libel laws, the establishment of effective self regulatory systems by the press, and extra resources for the training of journalists, and a commitment from  all Governments to the safety of journalists.

Covering the conference in the Spectator, Peter Oborne quoted extensively from Lord Black’s speech, describing it as “moving,” and reported that the Government had “shamefully” refused some would-be attendee journalists entry visas to the UK. He added: “We should have done so much more to celebrate the courage and fearless dedication of our Commonwealth brothers and sisters.”

Lord Black listed three reasons why press freedom really matters to the way society operates: holding authority to account, conducting long term investigations, and keeping voters properly informed by making complex policy issues understandable.

Lord Black said the principle of press freedom was something that the press should uphold. “But I am painfully aware that life is not as simple as that – and it is While all those in the independent media want to hold those in power to account, and undertake investigations in the public interest, in many parts of the world daily life as a journalist is a terrible struggle,” he continued.

“And the terrible fact is that far from there being progress in expanding media freedom across the globe, we seem to be going backwards – and the Commonwealth is no exception.

Lord Black concluded his speech by presenting a Commonwealth Press Union award for individuals or organisations that have made an enormous contribution to the defence of press and media freedom to the Human Rights Network for Journalists for Uganda.

Lord Black said: “When police beat up a broadcaster, Ssempala led the protest march – and was himself arrested. When journalists are detained without cause, HRNJ is on the spot with legal advice. One grateful reporter fresh from the cells advised colleagues never to be without the phone numbers of ‘the good men and women of HRNJ-Uganda.’

“When HRNJ activists are not on the frontline, they are educating the media on human rights and conducting seminars to raise journalistic standards, reduce risk and promote good governance. The battle for freedom of expression is far from won in Uganda, but the dedicated work of HRNJ has helped sustain the will to win against fearsome odds.”

In a separate move to defend the safety of journalists, WAN-IFRA has begun collaborating with Reporters Without Borders to actively push for the creation of the role of Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for the Safety of Journalists.