Ministers suppressing legal advice on press regulation
9:04PM GMT 18 Jan 2014
The Government is suppressing official advice over the legality of new rules to regulate the press, The Telegraph can disclose.
Ministers are refusing to disclose the contents of a key document on the Royal Charter, a new system of regulation which critics say risks granting politicians control over the press for the first time in 300 years.
The paper is thought to set out advice on whether the plans breach European law. Four QCs have said the scheme, which was drawn up based on Lord Justice Leveson’s report on press regulation, violates the clause concerning freedom of expression in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is overseeing the introduction of the new rules, admitted to The Telegraph that ministers had received official advice on the ECHR, but despite a freedom of information request, they refused to release it.
The refusal comes as an international mission on press freedom begins an investigation into the scheme.
The delegation from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which includes media executives from the US, Pakistan and Norway, has met Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, to discuss the proposals. It warned that its members were “deeply concerned” that politicians were attempting to “control the public debate” in Britain.
The Government insists the scheme is “compliant with all legislation” but a legal opinion commissioned by the newspaper industry warned that provisions to punish newspapers with “exemplary” damages if they refused to join a new regulator were incompatible with article 10 of the convention.
Newspaper groups, which have set up a rival regulator, have indicated that they will launch a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights if penalties are imposed.
A formal request submitted to the DCMS by The Telegraph under freedom of information laws in October asked for copies of all documents referring to article 10 of the ECHR in relation to the new charter.
The Department responded last week after a three-month delay, disclosing two documents from Associated Newspapers – the owner of the Daily Mail – raising concerns about possible conflicts with the ECHR.
However it refused to disclose a third “relevant” document, using an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.
Philip Davies, a Conservative member of the culture, media and sport committee which oversees the department, called for the paper to be published.
He said: “A free press is a cornerstone of a free society. You can’t just throw away hundreds of years of free speech and a free press willy nilly. If the Government have gone down this road of having statutory regulation of the press, it should only be done in a way that we can all see exactly what the situation is. There should be nothing for them to hide.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act the department had to examine whether it was in the “public interest” to disclose the document.
It acknowledged the “interest in knowing to what extent ministers followed official advice” and admitted that publishing it could allow an “informed debate” about the decisions. However, it warned against “premature disclosure” of such advice, saying releasing the document “might close off better options” for ministers and officials.
“There needs to be free space in which it is possible to consider options without fear their proposals will be misrepresented,” it said.
“After careful consideration of the competing interests, we conclude that the public interest in favour of maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
A spokesman added: “The Royal Charter does not make any changes at all to the way the press investigates or publishes stories. The Government does not routinely disclose legal advice. We are clear that independent self-regulation of the press is entirely consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.”