BskyB vote: time to put your money where your mouth is

by John Woodcock

After Ed Miliband made the running last week, members of parliament from all parties have said sensible things about the need for a new relationship between politicians and the press.

But the test of whether we understand the gravity of the current situation will come on Wednesday when the house of commons votes on Labour’s motion to delay the BSkyB takeover bid until the current criminal investigation into News International has concluded. I hope MPs on the government benches will put aside their differences and vote with us. They will have spent the weekend listening to constituents who simply will not understand if they talk a good game but fail to act.

Ed has been bold and astute. Over the past week he understood and communicated just how much changed with the revelation that this activity systematically targeted the public not just the famous. But of all the calls he has made, the most important may ultimately prove to be the way he has positioned Labour as champion of a continuing free press in Britain.

Faced with the horror of the allegations that surfaced, it would have been understandable – but wrong – to reach for the statute book and impose heavy centrally-controlled regulation on newspapers. Instead, Ed and shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis have set out the goal of a much strengthened system of self-regulation, replacing the “toothless poodle” of the press complaints commission with a tougher watchdog – that would give more independence and greater ability to hold publications to account.

Above all, Labour is making clear that the purpose of greater protection is to prevent any repeat of the appalling abuse apparently inflicted on vulnerable people. We will not countenance the erection of a curtain to protect the powerful.

If the allegations surrounding News International are true, those responsible need to face justice for disgusting acts that targeted victims of crime at their point of greatest vulnerability. But through all that, we know that a ballsy, investigative press remains very much in the public interest. The News of the World’s muck raking often fell far short of that gold standard, quite aside from the criminality that has brought the paper down. But at its best, that newspaper was pretty much unparalleled in its investigative power. Its passing has weakened journalism’s ability to hold those in positions of authority to account on behalf of the British people.

Ed’s leadership on this issue has rightly brought the relationship between journalists and politics into the spotlight. At their best, newspapers expose misdeeds and act as a megaphone to tell politicians what the public is really thinking. At their worst, that megaphone can be hijacked by a single editor or proprietor to advance his or her interests at the expense of the public interest.

Whether papers act fairly or unfairly, a continued commitment to a free press means politicians will still have to live with highly partisan attacks from the media no matter what changes are made in the wake of this scandal. I hope Tory MPs will still hurl the Guardian across the tea room in disgust from time to time, and Labour activists are unlikely to develop a love for the Daily Mail’s opinion pieces any time soon.

Ultimately, there should be no question of a newspaper being prevented from sticking someone’s head in a light bulb if they think that is in the interests of its readers. In a democracy which prizes freedom of speech, that is just how it goes sometimes.

What matters is how we respond. We want a good relationship with all media outlets that help us communicate with the public, from the Sun to Labour Uncut. And we will continue to invest time to get our message across.  Occasionally, even over dinner or at a reception.

But Ed has made it very clear this week that nothing will divert Labour from doing the right thing in the national interest. More than ever, that is what the British people expect from those who ask to govern on their behalf. Ed gets that, the prime minister clearly does not.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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One Response to “BskyB vote: time to put your money where your mouth is”

  1. Flashbum says:

    The investigation should have been put in place on first announcement of hacking. Even the hacking of celebrities phones was illegal, even if you think they deserved it. It is a shame that the NOTW was allowed to pay off individuals without court processes.

    Present guidelines are not enforceable, especially as it is a voluntary code implemented by PCC. They need an understandable remit to work under. Why is the written media any different from the broadcast?

    If a judicial review is to do it’s job then it needs to move now. That is what the public wants. We do not need it dragging out and being pushed under the carpet like the MP’s expense scandal seems to.

    One lost hour is one hour too long.

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