Benn Debate

After last night at the Benn debate, I wrote a piece on it for Wannabe Hacks:

You wouldn’t necessarily associate Bristol as being a city at the forefront of journalistic debate, but last night it became host to a fierce debate about the direction of the press after Leveson. It was hoped the debate would fall the day after Leveson, but sadly fell a little early.

However, with Leveson not reporting until tomorrow, it felt like more was at stake and that either side had a chance of being heard and being right, so to speak. Whereas if it had come after, the cogs may have already been in motion.

A Benn debate is held every year in Bristol. Set up by the NUJ, it allows for aspects of the industry to the be discussed and debated in great length, with the general public having some input or posing questions.

Chaired by Mike Jempson (above, centre), a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England (UWE); Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the NUJ (above, left) and Mick Hume (above, right), author of There’s No Such Thing as a Free Press, got to freely argue their side of the debate, without the press or politicians twisting their words.

The forefront of this debate was always going to be regulation, with both parties sitting firmly on separate sides of the line.

Mick Hume is a firm advocator for a free press. He said: “A free press is meant to be free. What that means is it doesn’t have to comply with what I think it should do, or what you think it should do, or what Michelle thinks it should do. Freedom of expression means, as Orwell said, if it means anything, the right to say things that others don’t want to hear.”

He even questions regulation itself, adding: “No one ever asked the question: why do we need any model of press regulation? Why do we need to regulate the press? Why do we need special rules and regulations for the press?

“[In America] there is the first amendment of the constitution which states that it is illegal for congress to pass any law, quote: ‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.’ If you want a statutory framework for regulating the press, how about that?”

Michelle Stanistreet, on the other hand, believes that the only way to ensure regulation works is to add teeth and make it independent. She said: “The press complaints commission has failed abysmally. It has done nothing to uphold standards. It has certainly not done anything to pursue good quality journalism. In fact, it has let journalism down on countless occasions.

“So we see this as a golden opportunity, a once in a generation opportunity to have departure from self-regulation on the bosses’ terms, which is what we have had for many years now, and to have a genuine form of independent regulation that protects journalists and journalism.”

Regulation may have been the centre point of the debate, but it touched on much wider issues around journalism and the way Leveson has or has not touched on them. Some key topics included Twitter, the BBC, the internet, the Murdochs and protecting the ‘little people’. All these issues really helped to bring a diverse and interesting twist on the debate, which you could argue has dragged on for far too long now.

So the outcome of the evening? Well, stronger regulation did win out, but Mick did sway a few people throughout the debate. To begin with, 13 were for a completely free press, 38 for some type of statute and 5 were undecided. By the end, 35 were for statute in some form, 21 for a free press and 2 undecided. Those numbers don’t amount to the same but some refused to vote at all.

Once again, the Benn debate has proved to be a great platform for relevant, needed and open debate. No matter which side you fell on, the information was powerful and compelling, bringing in the voices of people who would not normally have been heard. As for whether the majority fall on the side of Leveson, tomorrow will answer the key question: What next for the press?

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