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Leveson: Statutory Underpinning Really Does Mean A Free Press

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Yesterday morning, the editors -- less the not-insignificant presence of the legendarily foul-mouthed Paul Dacre -- fetched up on Downing Street and filed in to see Young Dave, with the supposed intention of setting up a properly independent regulator without the statutory underpinning that Leveson proposed. Cameron is said to have given them the jolly hard word on sorting themselves out.

So a regulator underpinned by statute is a bad thing, then? This is certainly the view put forward by the voluble Tim Luckhurst, professor of journalism at the University of Kent, who has quite clearly spelled out that statute equals loss of free speech, no free press, and censorship. No democrat, in his view, would sign up to such a thing, because they love freedom so much.

Sad so say, though, Luckhurst's analysis does not survive the application of facts, and here I am able to cite Reporters Without Borders (for Freedom of Information) in support. They have released their 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index, which has awarded Syria, Bahrain and Yemen the worst rankings -- to no surprise at all -- while giving equal top spot to Norway and Finland.

Yes, Finland -- a country which has an independent press regulator underpinned by statute. Maybe this is some kind of fluke: after all, groups like Hacked Off also cited Denmark and Ireland, which have a similar arrangement, and Luckhurst has condemned the latter as "not priz[ing] liberty as it should". And he stresses that underpinning and regulation are somehow interchangeable.

So back we go to that Press Freedom Index, to see that Denmark comes out equal tenth and Ireland fifteenth. But what of the UK, and moreover, what of the USA, where there is supposedly no restraint on the Fourth Estate? Ah well. I have bad news for the prof from Canterbury: neither country makes it into the top 15. They both lag well behind the three that practice statutory underpinning.

Worse, between Ireland at number 15 and the UK at 28 are Jamaica, Costa Rica, Namibia, Surinam and Mali, with Niger only one place further back. And the United States is way back at number 47. So Tim Luckhurst would have the UK aspire to be 19 places lower in the Press Freedom Index and openly sneers at the country that tops the table -- and two others in the top fifteen.

Luckhurst is reminiscent of those Republican politicians who substituted belief in place of reality in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, only to be dismayed when they lost, while everyone who had been looking at real world information was not. He is so damn sure of his righteousness, but every time some factual pointer emerges, it leaves him looking yet more foolish.