Top Lib Dems back Press freedom as they tell Cameron there is 'absolutely no need for it'
Environment Secretary become latest member of Cabinet to warn PM not to impose statutory regulationLib Dem deputy leader contradicted Nick Clegg's stance saying he would not back regulation of press



01:16 GMT, 27 November 2012

A cabinet minister and two of Nick Clegg’s most senior colleagues yesterday warned about the pitfalls of state regulation of the Press.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson became the latest member of the Cabinet to warn David Cameron not to impose statutory regulation, saying there was ‘absolutely no need for it’.

In a sign of growing cross party unease about the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes last night contradicted Nick Clegg’s stance, saying that he would not back statutory regulation.

Owen Paterson the Environment Secretary

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Owen Paterson, left, warned the Prime Minister not to impose statutory regulation of the press. Nick Clegg, right, has also been contradicted by Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes who said he would not back statuary regulation

And Lib Dem grandee Sir Menzies Campbell warned that only the rich would be able to take advantage of the lengthy and expensive court battles that could result from statutory regulation.

Lord Justice Leveson will report on Thursday on the outcome of his inquiry and is widely expected to recommend a tough new Press regulator underpinned by statute.

He has won the backing of both Labour leader Ed Miliband and Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg, who have both pledged to implement Leveson’s recommendations if they are workable and proportionate.

But a sizeable number of senior figures in Government and on the Opposition backbenches are concerned that it will allow politicians to meddle in media coverage and undermine Britain’s 300-year-old reputation as a bastion of free speech.

Mr Paterson said: ‘I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, who said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I go along with that wholeheartedly.’

The Leveson Inquiry was set up after revelations that the News of the World hacked the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler after her disappearance ten years ago.

But Mr Paterson said those offences should be dealt with under existing law. ‘What happened with the News of the World affair was a matter of law, not industry regulation,’ he added.

Lord Justice Leveson, pictured, will report on Thursday the outcome of his inquiry

Lord Justice Leveson, pictured, will report on Thursday the outcome of his inquiry

He said he could not think of ‘anything that would discredit politicians more’ than to bring in state regulation.

‘There is absolutely no need for it and the Government should leave well alone.’

Mr Hughes said innocent victims of inaccurate reporting should have the right to prominent apologies.

But he told ITV’s The Agenda that he would not back state regulation, which many regard as illiberal.

‘I’m not for having a statutory system but I am for having a system that says look there will be a fall-back,’ he added.

‘If somebody is slated on the front page of a paper and it’s totally untruthful and destroys their life they have a right to have something on the front page of the same paper to say that it was wrong.’

They join Michael Gove, William Hague, Theresa May and Eric Pickles as senior Cabinet ministers opposed to state control. Sir Menzies said he had a ‘genuinely open mind’ about regulation.

‘I am a firm believer in freedom of speech but with freedom comes responsibility.

'And unless the Press can satisfy everyone that they are capable of self-regulation then inevitably there will be enormous pressure for statutory regulation.

‘If I could sound a note of caution: if you have a statutory regulatory system, the decisions of any council or tribunal could be subject to judicial review, which could mean issues that ought to be quickly resolved would be dragged out and involve considerable legal expense,’ he added.

He said it was unlikely such cases would be open to those on legal aid and so ‘considerable resources’ would be needed to appeal.

Downing Street sources have indicated that David Cameron does not support statutory regulation.

But a spokesman said yesterday: ‘The Prime Minister is open-minded about Lord Justice Leveson’s report and will read it in full before he makes any decision about what to do.’