MATT HANCOCK on the threat to our free press

Why Scotland Yard MUST withdraw this threat to our free press, writes MATT HANCOCK

The leaks from the Foreign Office cables are deplorable. They have threatened to damage relations with our most important ally. They have undermined the confidence our civil servants have in their ability to write down what they really think.

They have led to the resignation of one of our finest public servants. And they have diminished our standing in the world. The full force of the Government should be brought in to find the leakers, and the full force of the law brought to bear on what they have done.

And we must be clear who bears culpability. The leaker. Not any publisher of leaks. Going after anyone other than the leaker is shooting the messenger.

Now of course, any editor must exercise discretion when publishing material.

MATT HANCOCK (pictured): To argue, as Scotland Yard did, that ‘all owners, editors and publishers’ should ‘not publish leaked Government documents’ is completely wrong

Our newspapers are already careful with information that could damage our national security or put lives at risk.

They exercise judgment and discretion. And of course, the law, relating to libel for example, protects people from harm.

The boundaries are always going to be a source of debate.

But to argue, as Scotland Yard did, that ‘all owners, editors and publishers’ should ‘not publish leaked Government documents’ is completely wrong.

It won’t wash, and the police should immediately withdraw this statement.

I’m proud of how we have defended press freedom over the past few years. We have strengthened the BBC Charter and resisted Labour’s attempts to introduce statutory regulation.

It is essential that the press can report without fear or favour, and can hold the powerful to account. The press must be free to publish what it believes to be in the public interest. Journalists and editors should not be subjected to threats of prosecution or sanction, especially from our own police.

Such threats act as a deterrent to journalists doing their jobs – and the ultimate outcome will be an erosion of accountability.

Democracy requires robust challenge. The reason is that all power needs to be challenged to be exercised fairly. Even in this country, where all Ministers are trying to do their best, the scrutiny – and the anticipation of scrutiny – sharpens you up.

As Health Secretary, I have seen the benefit that this brings. And in other countries, the need for this sort of accountability is only too obvious from the corruption that inevitably flows from its absence.

That’s always been true. But in an era of fake news, social media and disinformation, it is more important than ever that we defend our independent media and champion the freedom of the press, even when it’s uncomfortable.

But depressingly, anti-press sentiment and attacks on the media are being normalised in a way few would have believed just a few years ago.

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is on record urging activists to ‘target’ journalists whose reporting they don’t like.

MATT HANCOCK: The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell (pictured), is on record urging activists to ‘target’ journalists whose reporting they don’t like

The BBC’s political editor required bodyguards at the Labour Party conference in 2017. And for many reporters, abuse and attacks online have become par for the course. Just look at the response to the BBC Panorama investigation into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, where the integrity and character of the programme makers was traduced before the programme had even aired.

Last week I was appalled to see supporters of the far-Right targeting BBC Parliament reporters – possibly the most professional and upstanding of all journalists.

We must not allow such behaviour to continue.

This is all part of a deeply disturbing trend in our country: people attacking journalists because they do not like the truth of what they are reporting.

This is unacceptable, dangerous for democracy and must be resisted.

A free press, and, more broadly, a free media, is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s meant to be, especially for those in power. Because without robust accountability, democracy fails, power corrupts, and liberty is extinguished.

The individual who leaked the Foreign Office cables has threatened British interests and potentially broken the law.

But the media organisations that reported the story were only fulfilling the function they are expected to perform in a free society and a thriving democracy.

So let’s catch – and if possible prosecute – the leaker of secret information. And let’s defend our free press, and our freedom, to the end.

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