David Cameron

David Cameron: 'We want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account'

Prime minister David Cameron has defended the work of the Leveson inquiry into press standards and says the government remains committed to it, despite education secretary Michael Gove warning of the "dangers" the inquiry could pose to press freedom.

Speaking at prime minister's questions, Cameron said he wanted a "vibrant" press to continue after the Leveson inquiry reports its recommendations, and that the inquiry is "fully supported by the government".

He was asked by Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop to confirm his commitment to the inquiry, after education secretary Michael Gove, a former Times journalist, told parliamentary reporters at a lunch earlier this week that the wide-ranging inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Leveson could produce "a cure that is worse than the original disease".

Gove is reported by the Daily Mail as saying: "There is a danger at the moment that what we may see are judges, celebrities, and the establishment, all of whom have an interest in taking over from the press as arbiters of what a free press should be, imposing either soft or hard regulation.

"What we should be encouraging is the maximum amount of freedom of expression and the maximum amount of freedom of speech.

He added: "The big picture is that there is a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson.

"I think that there are laws already in place that we should respect and principles already in place that we should uphold that are central to ensuring that this country remains free."

The founders of the Hacked Off campaign, which represents some of the claimants in the News of the World phone-hacking case, wrote to the prime minister yesterday asking him to confirm that the government is still committed to the inquiry, in light of Gove's comments.

In a joint letter to the prime minister, Martin Moore and Brian Cathcart wrote: "Mr Gove's remarks show that he has not been listening to the evidence of widespread journalistic wrongdoing - whether criminal or merely unethical - emerging from the inquiry.

"Nor has he heard the victims' groups, academics, journalists, MPs and peers, and the judge himself who have all made clear that public interest journalism needs to not only be protected but nurtured in any improved system of regulation.

"His comments demonstrate that he does not understand the difference between protecting individual freedom of expression and opposing the unaccountable power of corporate press barons.

"They are also a reminder of the lazy and craven attitudes by senior politicians whose policies were often dictated by the need to appease powerful media proprietors, and formed part of the reason for establishing the Inquiry in the first place."

The campaign group added: "We would like an assurance from you that this government is still fully committed to the Leveson inquiry and its validity and need."

Asked in parliament yesterday if Gove was speaking for the government, Cameron replied: "It was right to set up the Leveson inquiry, and that is a decision fully supported by the entire government.

"I think my right honorable friend is making an important point, which is this: even as this inquiry goes on, we want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account, and we do not want to see it chilled - and although sometimes one may feel some advantage in having it chilled, that is not what we want."

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry hearing, covering the relationship between the press and the public and potentially illegal behaviour, has now ended. It has heard from 184 witnesses, with written statements from 42 others.

The next module, on the relationships between the press and police, begins next Monday.

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