Fears from within the media about government threats to press freedom are not yet shared by the general public, a YouGov poll carried out for a London Press Club/Society of Editors debate on the subject has shown.
Almost half of those from the media surveyed believe that freedom of the press is under threat from the government, compared to just 19% of the public, the biggest gulf in the whole poll. Last night’s event 800 years on from Magna Carta, do we still have a free press? saw a capacity crowd, primarily made up of media and legal professionals, at the Grange St Paul’s Hotel for an at-times heated debate.
The old school tie counted for nothing as former Reigate Grammer pupils Sir Keir Starmer and Sun associate editor Trevor Kavanagh faced off on a panel that also included Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg and YouGov president Peter Kellner and was chaired by Media Show presenter Steve Hewlett.
Starmer, previously head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was first praised by Kavanagh for agreeing to come to the debate despite his role in Operation Elveden that saw the proscecution of Sun journalists on allegations of inappropriate payments to police. But the magnanimity did not last long, with Kavanagh describing the prosecutions as a political vendetta in retaliation for the paper’s attacks on Gordon Brown, which Starmer, now Labour MP for Holborn and St. Pancras, denied, stating that he would have resigned if he had ever come under any political pressure. Starmer called for a simple, overarching public interest defence to be built into law.
Asked by Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn from the audience whether he would say sorry to around 40 Sun journalists and their families, Starmer said he understood the sentiment but declined to apologise.
Ginsberg, who worked as a journalist around the world before heading the international campaigning organisation, cited media plurality as “absolutely essential” to a free press and something that should be kept in mind when drawing up new editorial standards. With opinion in the YouGov poll split on whether Britain should have its own version of the US’ First Amendment, Kellner said it would be a mistake to do so, or to relax libel laws.
Kavanagh also argued that Elveden was in part inspired by the failure to charge any Sun journalists on phone hacking, adding that the News of the World was closed on the basis of inaccuracy from The Guardian and didn’t rule out the paper being resurrected.
“This is such an important issue so I am in admiration of the nerve, stamina and restraint from all the panel and terrific chairing from Steve Hewlett,” said London Press Club chair and Society of Editors president Doug Wills. “The evening was made possible by the generosity of Grange Hotels and YouGov and we are delighted to have raised over £700 for the Journalists’ Charity.
The debate was the latest in a series of London Press Club events that has seen seven sell-outs so far this year on topics including diversity in the media, political coverage and campaigning journalism. For more information visitwww.londonpressclub.co.uk.