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St Helena’s press law a step too far for Britain?

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British politicians are divided over whether to bring in tough press controls similar to those on St Helena.

The prime minister, David Cameron, said enforcing standards by law could end three centuries of press freedom.

But the leaders of the other two main parties want the government to pass a new law to protect people from abusive reporting.

Changes to press regulation have been recommended by Lord Justice Leveson after Mr Cameron ordered an inquiry in press conduct.

His suggestions have some similarity with St Helena’s Media Standards Ordinance, which set up a commission with judicial powers. Its members are appointed by the island’s governor, but on the advice of its independent Judicial Services Commission.

They can impose fines, and any editor or publisher who refuses to co-operate with the media board could be punished under contempt of court powers.

The judge does not say the UK government should go that far. He advises a tougher form of self-regulation, meaning newspapers should set up an independent body to rule on breaches of a code of conduct, but with greater powers than existed before.

A new law should be passed to back it up and ensure that it stood up for press freedom and high standards.

John MacRitchie, St Helena’s chief magistrate and president of the new media standards commission, has said in the past that self-regulation could not work on St Helena because the media industry was too small.

He has insisted that the standards commission would be free from government control, even though the governor had the power to decide who could serve on it.

Concern has been expressed on St Helena that the law might be used in future to restrain media freedom – a vital part of democracy.

It is already constrained because of secrecy in government decision-making.

But the media standards law also says that human rights such as free speech must not be compromised.

In London, Lord Leveson’s recommendations divided the coalition government.

David Cameron said he had “serious concerns” over statutory regulation but his deputy, Nick Clegg, said he supported controls underpinned by a new law.

And Labour leader Ed Miliband urged the government to accept the report in its entirety.

Mr Cameron said: “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press.

“The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press.”

Island’s media watchdog is left short of members

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