Global press group visits Britain over newspaper freedom fears

Newly assigned Culture Secretary Maria Miller leaves Downing Street in London, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Neil Hall (Reuters)

By Michael Holden LONDON (Reuters) - A global media organization began its first press freedom mission to Britain on Wednesday over concerns about the government's plans to regulate newspapers and its response to the Edward Snowden revelations. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), based in Paris, said it would be holding meetings with Culture Secretary Maria Miller as part of a visit to Britain to discuss "worrying developments". It said its previous press freedom missions had been undertaken in countries such as South Africa, Libya, Yemen, Azerbaijan and Myanmar, but never before in Britain. "The WAN-IFRA membership is deeply concerned by the British authorities' treatment of the profession of journalism and its attempts to control the public debate," WAN-IFRA chief executive Vincent Peyrègne said in a statement. "The British government's actions have far reaching consequences across the globe - particularly within the Commonwealth - and any threats to the independence of journalism in Britain could be used by repressive regimes worldwide to justify their own controls over the press." British newspapers have reacted with alarm and anger to plans for a new regulatory system proposed by the government in the wake of a phone-hacking scandal centered around the British newspaper arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The new measures approved last October followed a public inquiry into the press launched in 2011 after revelations that staff at Murdoch's now defunct tabloid the News of the World had illegally intercepted voicemail messages on mobile phones, including those of a murdered schoolgirl. The plans are designed to make it easier for people who feel they have been wronged by the press to have their complaints heard, and will allow the new press watchdog to levy fines of up to 1 million pounds ($1.64 million). Backed by all main political parties, they are designed to end the worst excesses of Britain's notoriously aggressive and scandal-hungry press. Although the government has stopped short of press regulation backed by law, the industry says the new watchdog plans are still draconian and threaten the freedom of speech. Several newspapers have indicated they will ignore the watchdog's recommendations to try to render it ineffective, and have moved ahead with plans for their own version. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the new system of self-regulation would protect press freedom while offering redress for mistakes, and would not impinge on what newspapers published. "Free speech underpins our democracy and the government has always been clear it is vitally important to uphold it," a spokesman said. Among those the WAN-IFRA delegation will meet in London will be Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper which has been severely criticized for its reporting of leaks from Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor. The Guardian was among several international newspapers to publish stories about mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain's eavesdropping agency GCHQ, and Rusbridger faced hostile questioning when he appeared before a parliamentary committee in December. (Editing by Mike Collett-White)