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The Labour Party, which had recently shown signs it might abandon altogether the pursuit of reform of the media, has this week renewed its support for Leveson-style press regulation, albeit in low-key fashion.
In a House of Commons debate on the Government’s plan to scrap the last element of the Leveson reform scheme left on the statute books, Labour members voted for an amendment aimed at preventing complete repeal.
Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debonnaire, setting out her party’s position, told MPs: “We on the Labour benches want a press that is regulated in a way that makes it accountable for its reporting and that meets the highest ethical and journalistic standards.”
Labour members then voted in favour of an amendment tabled by rebel Conservative MP George Eustice which aims to keep alive the Leveson scheme to encourage news publishers to participate in effective regulation that is both independent of the industry and free from political interference.
In terms of parliamentary procedure, it was the least that Labour could do in relation to reforms it had backed strongly, under successive leaders, ever since the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the press, which followed the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal, produced its recommendations in 2012.
At issue was section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which provides incentives – ‘sticks and carrots’ – for the press to join a Leveson-standard regulator. Though the Conservatives voted for it in 2013, successive Conservative governments have refused to implement it and, in a sop to its press friends, Rishi Sunak’s Government is now trying to repeal it altogether.
Whether it can be repealed before a general election is uncertain after this week’s Commons vote – the Lords must now have their say – but for those in favour of better press regulation and of press reform generally, it is the position adopted by Labour, as the prospective next government, that is most important.
Had Labour abstained on the Eustice amendment, as it had shown signs it was preparing to do, it would have meant the abandonment by the party of even the most cautious aspiration to challenge press power – a cause that has strong support on the party’s backbenches.
The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party also supported the amendment.
Explaining Labour’s position on the Eustice amendment, Debonnaire told the Commons: “The majority of British journalists are decent and honourable, but there are some who even now continue to drag the good name of that profession into disrepute. That profession is a cornerstone of our democracy and it is important that the public are able to trust it, but at the moment we are at risk of the public losing faith in the profession of journalism, as was certainly also the case before section 40 was created and before that scandal was exposed.”
Read the debate here, starting at column 749.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, academic and campaigner. He was one of the founders of the Hacked Off group for a free and accountable press and which campaigned against the repeal of section 40