Members of the Hacked Off campaign, including singer Charlotte Church and actor Hugh Grant, told the Tory Party Conference their fears of a government climbdown on press regulation have been allayed following a meeting with the Prime Minister.
The pressure group had opened the conference by publishing a letter in which they claimed to be disturbed by rumours saying David Cameron was veering away from statutory regulation of the press and likely to give self-regulation another shot.
During a private meeting in Birmingham with the Prime Minister he told Charlotte Church, former police officer and Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames and Hacked Off chairman Brian Cathcart, that he was open minded on regulation and that as long as the Leveson Inquiry produced sensible recommendations he was likely to act on them.
The meeting was followed by a conference fringe event, co-hosted by Hacked Off, the National Union of Journalists and the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform at which Tory members were told that regulation is a Conservative cause.
Martin Moore of Hacked Off said: “I have heard that regulation is not a Conservative cause. But how can Conservatives be happy that major corporations have trampled on the property and privacy rights of ordinary citizens. How can they be happy that they handed brown envelopes of money to bribe police officers.
“We want freedom, but what we have had is lawnessness.”
The panel was resolute in their defence of press freedom, but called for legal and independent regulation to protect citizens.
Ms Church insisted that this was as much about victims of crime or campaigners who had been hacked or followed, as about celebrities.
“I think that’s got lost along the way,” she said.
“Parts of the media have been like a child who is badly behaved and does not have any discipline from its apathetic parent. We now have an opportunity to right this wrong.”
Answering claims that celebrities sign away their right to privacy when they reap the rewards of fame she replied: “When I was 12 there was no deal, nothing to say I had to sign away some of my human rights if I wanted to do something I am good at.”
But she added that she has accepted that members of public, with mobile phone cameras, do want to take her picture.
“I deal with it. It is not the picture, but the distortion, the story which goes with it, which is the issue.”
The panel also heard how Jacqui Hames’ home life was turned upside down after her former husband, a fellow police officer, appeared on Crimewatch to launch an appeal into an unsolved murder.
Her family were followed, the phone hacked and private information was ‘blagged’ she said. “The repercussions have been with us for the last ten years of our lives,” she said.
Former Conservative Party press officer George Eustace MP (Camborne and Redruth) warned against people on the extremes of the debate taking it over – pointing out that the left saw it as an opportunity to indulge in Murdoch bashing, while the right have raised alarm over North Korean style strangling of freedom of speech.
He agreed that self-regulation had failed and argued for light-touch statutory regulation. He said that legal regulation has not hampered the ability of broadcast journalists to investigate or Newsnight to routinely grill ministers.
“We have got to have something which protects the rights of civil society,” he added.
In the audience throughout was actor and leading figure in the phone hacking campaign Hugh Grant. He remarked afterwards that it had been a good debate.