Council of Europe warns on Leveson plan

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Imposing the press laws recommended by Lord Justice Leveson would damage Britain’s democracy, the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights has said.

Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, said he understood the motives behind the campaign for greater press regulation in the light of the phone-hacking scandal, but stressed that new laws were not the answer.

“I’m very cautious about controlling the media because it always leads to something bad – it always leads to misuse of power,” he told the Financial Times.

He said his views were “quite close” to those of David Cameron, prime minister, who supports tougher self-regulation of Britain’s newspapers but opposed Lord Justice Leveson’s call for a new regime to be underpinned by law.

“What I have seen going on in the UK, both related to the Murdoch papers as well as what we have seen at the BBC, is very worrying,” said Mr Jagland, whose organisation acts as a European watchdog on human rights. “[But] I am very cautious about any kind of new [press] regulation.”

Mr Jagland, a former prime minister of Norway who also heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee, warned that heavy-handed regulation could harm investigative journalism.

“You do not need a new law to say that phone hacking is illegal,” he said. “It’s already a crime . . . and you can enforce existing laws to deal with the problem.”

The comments came as efforts continued to find consensus on a new regulatory regime after Mr Cameron’s opposition to legislative backing put him at odds with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the opposition Labour party.

The prime minister is understood to be considering the option of a royal charter, the same mechanism used to establish the BBC, to underpin a new watchdog. Unlike state legislation, the charter can only be changed every decade – thus minimising the chances of political interference.

“We are digesting the Leveson report and considering a range of options,” Mr Cameron’s spokesman said on Friday. “What we want to achieve is a proper independent regulator which commands the confidence of the public.”

Brian Cathcart, director of Hacked Off, which represents victims of press abuses, said his group was still backing statutory underpinning.

In the face of mounting pressure from parliament, national newspaper editors agreed on Wednesday to embrace the principles of the Leveson report, to head off legislative action.

Their meeting followed a warning from Mr Cameron that “the clock is ticking for this to be sorted out”.

In a speech in Sydney on Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson said that new laws were also required to prevent “mob rule” and protect privacy and freedom of expression on the internet.

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