NS calls for 'press freedom' audit on Home Office policy

 The Newspaper Society has called on new Home Secretary David Blunkett to run a "press freedom" audit over any new legislation planned by his ministry.

The NS won a commitment from his predecessor Jack Straw that such an audit would take place. It followed complaints that new laws were unintentionally restricting freedom of the press and open justice.

This, it was claimed, led to last-minute "crisis management" changes having to be made once the media was alerted.

Straw asked his officials to ensure there was full and early consultation over any policy proposals that would affect the media.

Now, in a letter to Blunkett, NS director David Newell says: "This action was warmly welcomed by all sections of the media and we would welcome your confirmation that this system will be maintained and developed."

The NS’s "wish list" on future legislation from the Home Office is:

lReform of the Official Secrets Act by introducing defences of public interest and prior publication.

lReform of the Protection from Harassment Act so the media is excluded from its remit.

lMore protection for journalists to keep their sources secret.

The NS also wants the police to be more accountable and to introduce new procedures to help the flow of information to the press about people involved in incidents with the police and those who have been through the criminal justice system. It calls for improved training at all levels of the police force to discourage and avoid unnecessary secrecy and for police disciplinary tribunals to be held in public.

Newell also asks Blunkett to promote open justice and to make sure that new legislation does not reduce press access to the courts.

The NS warns against the new communications bill introducing controls over internet publication, including newspapers’ websites; that EU legislation aimed at countering cyber crime does not put new content controls on journalistic material; and that unworkable criminal privacy legislation should not be introduced.

The NS director has said he would welcome a meeting with the new Home Secretary to discuss the issues in his letter.

Blunkett has agreed to be the guest speaker for the annual lunch at the Newspaper Conference, which is made up of the London editors and Lobby correspondents of regional newspapers, next March.

By Jon Slattery

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