A free press is 'vital to local democracy'

It's the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted on 15 December 1791.

The right to a free press was top of the list of 10 amendments that make up the oldest bill of rights, standing the test of time over two centuries.

And now Britain is catching up.

In a speech at the Society of Editors meeting in Southampton, the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid attacked police use of the anti-terrorist Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to reveal journalists' sources, and said he wanted to see a guarantee of future protection.

Image copyright @societyofeditors
Image caption Culture Secretary Sajid Javid in Southampton

"RIPA was passed to help with the fight against serious criminal wrongdoing, not to impede fair and legitimate journalism, no matter how awkward that journalism may be for police officers and local councils.

"The legislation should never be used to spy on reporters and whistleblowers who are going about their lawful, vital, business. "

Following the Levenson inquiry, we are in a time of real change for politicians and media.

And the internet is a harsh wind of global commercial competition to speed that change.

Amongst the dangers, Sajid Javid highlighted the "right to forget" imposed on Google by European court rulings, where 1,000 requests a day are now being filed.

Digital dominance

"Terrorists have ordered Google to cover up stories about their trials. The search engine's own lawyer has warned of unscrupulous companies abusing the system so that links to their competitors are hidden. The 'right to be forgotten' is censorship by the back door."

Competition from the internet is hitting local newspapers' revenues. Across the world, circulation is falling as people prefer to get their news for nothing.

In the UK, the BBC draws continuing fire from the regional press, who see the guaranteed income from the licence fee supporting blogs like this one, in competition with them.

Since the BBC doesn't take advertising in the UK, it's only competition for eyeballs, you could argue that supporting the local conversation is vital to keep community journalism going.

But Sajid Javid warned of what he saw as the danger of BBC "digital dominance".

He called for the BBC to suggest ways the licence fee could be used to promote local reporting, in addition to the support about to be provided to new commercial local TV stations arriving to the likes of Brighton, Southampton and Oxford.

Power to people

I led a session at the conference, discussing the local media's response to the idea of handing power from Westminster to local councils.

Should the press be backing English devolution? Is it in our readers' interests? Is it what they want?

Certainly they want politicians held more accountable and forced to face up to the consequences of decisions made in Westminster, a place which seems a million miles from many people's lives, in the South and North of England.

So the culture secretary offered the icing on the cake for the newspaper editors gathered on the south coast.

Committing a future Conservative government to enshrining in law the press freedoms that have been enjoyed in America for centuries, but which have had to be continually re-justified in the UK.

British Rights

In a British bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act Sajid Javid is promising protection for free journalism.

"I have agreed with the justice secretary that the British bill of rights will include specific protection for journalists and a free press. The Human Rights Act and the European courts have not done enough to protect journalists who play such a unique role in our society.

"Britain's newspapers remain the best in the world. A vital bulwark against wrongdoing. A voice for the voiceless. The very foundation upon which our democracy stands."

It was music to the ears of those who feel the establishment needs the regular sting of challenge from what Burke called "The Fourth Estate".

That was in the House of Commons, in fact, in 1787. Just four years before the Americans got in on the act. Better late than never, eh?