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June 1997

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[Press Gazette - 6 June 1997]

Optimistic Evans heralds end of Britain's 'half-free' press - But he urges British journalists to learn from mistakes of US counterparts - by Naomi Marks

British journalism is on the cusp of breaking free of many of its fetters - but British journalists would do well to learn from the mistakes of their US counterparts, according to Harold Evans, former Times and Sunday Times editor.

Evans, delivering the Iain Walker memorial lecture, struck an optimistic note. He said rescue of Britain's 'half free press' was at hand in the form of the new Labour government.

'If they mean what they say, the chains are set to be sundered by two hammer blows,' he said, pointing toward Labour promises to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and institute a freedom of information act.

However, he warned that these were not enough. Evans said standards of reporting in the US, where he now lives, had declined of late, despite the First Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines the freedom of the press, and the Freedom of Information Act.

He said there was less investigative journalism, an increase in tabloid values, complex stories were over-simplified, TV news degraded, there was false patriotism and political correctness, and an over-emphasis on profit.

Freedom had to be treated carefully, he said. 'Freedom for what? Freedom for the clandestine taping of the calls to a therapist? Freedom for snooping on children at school? Freedom to pay for a video of the Princess of Wales and her supposed lover? Freedom to trespass in hospital wards? Freedom to ridicule a minister because she had put on weight? Freedom is an opportunity, the eternal vigilance is required for liberty, is also required to frustrate the misuse of liberty.'

Of the US FoI Act he said there were difficulties with delays, costs of appeals, varying practices of different departments, privacy issues and commercial confidence.

He said: 'The (British) press can use this next year or so to good effect - the press should re-examine that intelligent draft bill drawn up when Labour was in opposition, check that what is given with one hand in an FoI is not taken away with the other in the extended Data Protection Act.'

He added that journalists should also insist on multi-tracking of requests so that the urgent gets priority.

He ended: 'The half-free press can be saved and it can, it will, it must, enhance the quality of democracy in Britain".

Brickbats and bouquets for publishers who are prepared to use the law

In his speech, Harold Evans praised his old boss Rupert Murdock for supporting the Sunday Times's legal battle with Derbyshire County Council that led to the ruling that public bodies could not sue for libel, as well as the more recent Albert Reynolds libel case.

'Other national proprietors please note,' he said. 'When I catch wind of some of the battles avoided on the grounds of the legal costs, insurance problems etc, I wonder if the accountant has supplanted the lawyer as the brake on reform.'

There was also praise for Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and former editor Peter Preston. 'Their quite brilliant investigation of sleaze was a vindication not just for The Guardian, but for journalism.' But he had harsh words for ITN and its legal fight with Living Marxism. 'It is a shame it did not seek redress - in a television confrontation, rather than by issuing writs and silencing discussion of a complex situation.'

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