MP Jacob-Rees Mogg . . . the 'hero of free speech'
A CONSERVATIVE MP who defied David Cameron over proposals for press regulation has been hailed a “hero of free speech”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg MP for North East Somerset was among only a small number of MPs to criticise the cross-party deal on a new press watchdog established by royal charter and backed by legislation.
The new regulatory regime will replace the current system, under which the press is self-regulated voluntarily through the Press Complaints Commission.
Expressing his disquiet at the move, the Tory MP said it amounted to licensing the press, which he stressed the importance of in holding Parliament to account and exposing wrong-doing.
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And in a scathing broadside he branded the campaign group Hacked Off as a “disreputable body” which used wronged victims as a cover.
The charter itself does not require parliamentary approval.
But Mr Rees-Mogg was a vote teller for the small group of Tory MPs who opposed measures which could see judges award punitive damages against publications which refuse to sign up to the new watchdog.
Paul Goodman, a Conservative commentator who is executive editor of ConservativeHome, an influential political website for party activists, lauded “this tiny band as heroes of free speech”.
The proposed legislation, recommended by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on press standards, is intended as an incentive for publishers to co-operate with the new regulator, established by royal charter.
Party leaders claimed the watchdog - with powers to demand up-front apologies from UK publishers and impose £1 million fines - would protect victims of press intrusion and preserve press freedom.
With the leadership of the three main parties signed up to the plan, the exemplary damages provision was passed by 530 votes to 13, majority 517.
Those supporting it included Lib Dem MPs Don Foster for Bath and Duncan Hames for Chippenham, and Tory MPs James Gray for North Wiltshire, Dr Andrew Murrison for South West Wiltshire.
But outlining his opposition in the Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “I am concerned about deciding to license the press - and that is what we are doing.
“If newspapers do not sign up to this agreement, they risk paying a high level of costs on any occasion when they are sued for libel, and that will be introduced by statute. If they do not sign up to the agreement, they risk punitive damages.
“By increasing such powers and the viciousness of the laws against those newspapers that will not be registered and licensed by the state, we undermine our freedoms.”
Mr Rees-Mogg warned increasing state power over the media risked self-censorship, with the press reluctant to criticise “the great and the good”.
He went on: “I think that Hacked Off is a most disreputable body that used the sad tales of a small number of victims whose bad treatment was often against the law as the cover for a campaign for celebrities who had disreputable pasts that they did not like being reported.”
A separate piece of legislation means the charter outlining the regulator’s powers can only be changed with a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament.
But the MP said this was ‘nonsense’ as a future Parliament could ditch it.
The Prime Minister insisted that the scheme did not “cross the Rubicon” of introducing a press law.
But he conceded that two “relatively small legislative changes” would be driven through as part of the press reforms.
The Newspaper Society, representing local papers, said the proposals agreed by the three parties would place “a crippling burden on the UK's 1,100 local newspapers, inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish”.