Ed Miliband – 2011 Speech at Reuters on Press Freedom


Below is the text of the speech made by Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, to Reuters on 8th July 2011.

I want to thank Reuters for hosting this speech this morning.

This has been a tumultuous week for British journalism.

With allegations that have shocked the British public’s sense of decency.

And the largest circulation newspaper in the country, the News of the World, being forced to close.

But it is right to take a step back from the daily revelations and to reflect on what it all means.

And I am glad I can do it here at the London headquarters of an internationally renowned news organisation that for more than 160 years has maintained its independence and its integrity.

Today I want to talk to you about why now is a time for strong leadership from both politicians and those in the newspaper industry who feel passionately about its integrity and ethics.

We must deal with the immediate issues but also ensure we use this crisis of public trust and confidence as a catalyst for a better future.

So I want to deal with the choices we must make now to start to chart a path back to British journalism being the envy of the world.

This is my argument today.

A strong, vital press is at the heart of our democracy.

We must protect it and defend it.

We all know politicians must be wary of tampering with the precious institution of the free press.

Yet there come moments when it is up to us to defend, not ourselves, but the public from parts of the press.

We must not only speak for the public, but also show we can act on their behalf.

Let me start with what might seem obvious: why a free and buccaneering press matters.

British journalism has been – and is – some of the best in the world.

Our newspapers are part of our way of life.

Very few countries have so many titles redolent with history, vying with each other for a place in the home of tens of millions of British families.

Great titles. Great newspapers. They come in many forms.

They reach different markets. They have different politics.

I want to defend them all in doing their work.

And we in this country have a long and proud tradition of journalism exposing what needs to be exposed.

From campaigns on Thalidomide, to the investigation of match-fixing in cricket by the News of the World.

When people talk about the idea of democracy, we mean much more than the right to vote.

We can think of countries round the world where people have the vote, but we know the press is not truly free.

People are intimidated from expressing their view.

Journalists are jailed for what they write.

Newspapers are closed down – not by proprietors but by government.

All of that represents a gross interference and perversion of what we think of as a true democracy.

What is more, within our democracy, a free press is an essential part of what makes political change happen.

Too often, we think of politics as being about politicians.

In fact, political change happens often because of people outside politics, including our newspapers.

So, precisely because one of the roles of the press is to hold politicians to account, we need to take the greatest care when addressing the issue of press freedom.

And the relationship between politicians and the press has always been fraught.

The history of politicians complaining about bias, character assassination and falsehoods in the press goes back a long way and certainly predates the invention of the internet, or the arrival of Rupert Murdoch in Britain.

One of my predecessors as Labour leader said that the outstanding mark of modern times was “A snippety press and a sensational public”.

It was Keir Hardie, a century ago.

So, newspapers often campaign on their readers’ behalf, speak truth to power and stand up for the people against politicians.

But what happens when journalism does not do right by the public?

What happens when newspapers, who claim, and often rightly claim, to be the protectors of the rights of the people, themselves infringe those rights?

When those who claim to protect the public from the arbitrary workings of power indulge in arbitrary, cruel, even criminal abuse of power themselves?

And at such a time, our job must be to stand up for people against those who exercise power without responsibility.

For too long, political leaders have been too concerned about what people in the press would think and too fearful of speaking out about these issues.

If one section of the media is allowed to grow so powerful that it becomes insulated from political criticism and scrutiny of its behaviour, the proper system of checks and balances breaks down and abuses of power are likely to follow.

We must all bear responsibility for that.

My party has not been immune from it.

Nor has the current government and Prime Minister. All of this is difficult because of his personal relationships and the powerful forces here.

But just because we didn’t get it right in the past, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put it right now.

Putting it right for the Prime Minister means starting by the appalling error of judgement he made in hiring Andy Coulson.

Apologising for bringing him in to the centre of the government machine.

Coming clean about what conversations he had with Andy Coulson before and after his appointment about phone-hacking.

The truth is that all politicians been lagging behind the public’s rising sense of anger and indignation about the methods and culture of sections of the press.

There are moments in our national life when the public looks to political leaders not just to express sentiment, but to accept the responsibility for leading the call of change.

There has been a pent up demand for change for many years.

But this week the dam burst.

We should stand up for the public, without fear and without favour.

The full horror of the revelations of the last few days has shocked and disgusted people across this country.

I know it has shocked many journalists, including many journalists at News International.

We have heard allegations, that in the pursuit of a story, people working for the News of the World hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler, an abducted child, even deleting some of her messages.

Hacked the voicemail messages of the grieving parents of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, the two girls murdered in Soham.

Hacked the voicemail messages of victims of the 7/7 bombings.

Even allegations of the hacking of the families of fallen soliders.

Each and every one of these has rightly sickened the country.

They can’t simply be dismissed as isolated examples committed by a rogue reporter.

There appears to have been a systematic pattern of activity.

Affecting not simply members of the Royal family, the cabinet and celebrities, but also private people who never expected or wanted to see their names in the papers.

And the activities don’t seem to have been limited to phone hacking.

It is now also alleged that it included payments being made to police for stories.

In so many cases there was absolutely no conceivable public interest.

Clearly in a highly competitive media market, the ethics of those involved come under pressure.

In too many cases, people lost a sense of right and wrong.

Papers which prided themselves so much on speaking for their readers lost touch with the British public’s sense of decency.

As I have already said, part of blame for this being allowed to go unquestioned for too long must be shared by politicians of all parties.

Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with politicians engaging with the media at any level.

Editors, proprietors, reporters, columnists, whoever.

What matters isn’t whether these relationships exist.

It’s whether they stifle either the ability of the press to speak out against political leaders, or political leaders to speak up for the public when the press does the wrong thing.

Looking at these events, some have insisted the answer is merely to leave it to the police.

It is, of course, right that a proper police inquiry gets to the bottom of what happened, and prosecutes those involved.

But this is not enough.


Because it seems to be part of a culture in parts of the industry.

And because it is absolutely clear that the system of self-regulation we have has hopelessly and utterly failed.

All of us have an interest in a press that can be trusted by the British public.

It is right that we restore that reputation of decent, hard-working journalists who have professional integrity and the highest standards.

So what is to be done?

We need a judge-led inquiry to shine a light on the culture and practices which need to change.

This should be establised immediately with terms of reference agreed before the summer.

The inquiry should cover the culture and unlawful practices of some parts of the newspaper industry, the relationship between the police and media, and the nature of regulation.

However, public confidence will not come simply from a judicial inquiry but also from fair dealing in all major decisions concerning the media.

Most immediately, the decision on BskyB has significant implications for media ownership in Britain.

The public must have confidence that the right decisions are being made.

That is why we have consistently said there should be a reference to the Competition Commission, the proper regulatory body.

The government has chosen a different path which relies on assurances from executives at News Corporation.

Given the doubts hanging over the assurances about phone hacking by News international executives, I cannot see, and the public will not understand, how this can provide the fair dealing that is necessary.

I strongly urge the government to take responsibilty and think again about how it is handling the BskyB decision.

Those who were in senior positions at the News of the World at the time phone hacking was taking place must also take responsibility.

I talked recently about the need to restore the principle of responsibility throughout society.

From the benefits office to the boardroom.

This principle cannot stop at the door of the newspaper boardroom.

When the banks precipitated the financial crisis, politicians were quick to demands head needed to roll.

If an oil company was found to have contaminated the coastline, I have no doubt its chief executive would have faced calls from politicians, including the Prime Minister, to resign.

The practices at the News of the World have harmed innocent victims and contaminated the reputation of British journalism.

I welcome James Murdoch’s admission of serious errors.

But closing the News of the World, possibly to re-open as the Sunday Sun, is not the answer.

Instead those who were in charge must take responsibility for what happened.

And politicians cannot be silent about it.

Finally, we need wholesale reform of our system of regulation.

The Press Complaints Commission has failed.

It failed to get to the bottom of the allegations about what happened at News International in 2009.

Its chair admits she was lied to but could do nothing about it.

The PCC was established to be a watchdog.

But it has been exposed as a toothless poodle.

Wherever blame lies for this, the PCC cannot restore trust in self-regulation.

It is time to put the PCC out of its misery.

We need a new watchdog.

There needs to be fundamental change.

My instincts continue to be that a form of self-regulation would be the best way forward. That is a debate we should have.

But it would need to be very different to work.

Let me make some initial suggestions, drawing on many of the debates about the inadequacies of the system.

A new body should have:

– Far greater independence of its Board members from those it regulates

– Proper investigative powers

– And an ability to enforce corrections.

Change should be led by the many decent editors and people in the industry who want to see change.

I call on journalists, and those concerned with decent journalism, to put the reform of the system of self regulation at the centre of their concerns.

To see in that a way of regaining and retaining the trust of those you need most: your readers.

The inquiry is one place from which this reform can be made.

But change does not need to wait for the judge-led inquiry.

If we can make change in the meantime, we should.

The press would be showing to the public that it was taking the first steps to cleaning up its act if it started to make change now.

Today, I want to call on all the many decent people in the industry to take the initiative and start to make this happen.

So there are four essential things that need to happen — that all political leaders must stand up for — if we are to start to restore trust.

The right kind of public inquiry, accompanying the police inquiries.

Proper decisions in respect of media ownership, in particular the BSkyB bid.

The taking of responsibility by those at News International.

And reform of our system of press regulation.

Nothing less will do.

Let me conclude on this point.

The mainstream media, what some people call old media, is fighting ever harder to protect its shrinking share of a market which now demands updated information minute-by-minute, 24 hours a day.

Many British newspapers are in the lead in making this change.

But despite this there is a crisis of economics in a newspaper industry under threat from the availability of free information on the internet and unsure of whether it can generate a sustainable income from its own online services.

This creates new pressures on newspapers, seeking to produce ever more journalism on ever lower budgets.

It is incredibly important that British journalism survives and thrives in the new world.

But what we know after this week is that journalism must deal not just with a crisis of finance, but with a crisis of trust.

Political leaders should be prepared to work with those in the media to make change happen.

If we do so I am convinced Britain can have the frank, free and fearless, and trusted press, the public deserve.