MP hailed 'hero of free speech'
A SOUTH Devon MP who defied David Cameron over proposals for press regulation has been hailed a 'hero of free speech'.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, was among only a small number of MPs to criticise the cross-party deal on a new press watchdog established by royal charter and backed by legislation.
The new regulatory regime will replace the current system, under which the press is self-regulated voluntarily through the Press Complaints Commission.
The Newspaper Society, representing local papers, said the proposals agreed by the three parties would place 'a crippling burden on the UK's 1,100 local newspapers, inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish'.
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NS president Adrian Jeakings said Lord Justice Leveson had found the phone-hacking scandal was nothing to do with local media, but the three parties had completely ignored his call for safeguards to protect regional and local newspapers.
Expressing Dr Wollaston's disquiet at the move in Parliament, the Conservative MP branded it a 'white flag' and said it was 'a sad day'.
"This is more than just a toenail in the door of regulation of the press and we may live to regret it," she said.
The charter itself does not require parliamentary approval.
But Dr Wollaston was among a small group of Tory MPs to oppose measures which could see judges award punitive damages against publications which refuse to sign up to the new watchdog.
Paul Goodman, a Conservative commentator who is executive editor of ConservativeHome, an influential political website for party activists, lauded 'this tiny band as heroes of free speech'.
The proposed legislation, recommended by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on press standards, is intended as an incentive for publishers to co-operate with the new regulator, established by royal charter.
Party leaders claimed the watchdog — with powers to demand up-front apologies from UK publishers and impose £1million fines — would protect victims of press intrusion and preserve press freedom.
With the leadership of the three main parties signed up to the plan, the exemplary damages provision was passed by 530 votes to 13, majority 517.
Those supporting it included Lib Dem MP for Torbay Adrian Sanders and Tory MPs Anne Marie Morris for Newton Abbot and Mel Stride for Central Devon.
Speaking during an emergency debate in the Commons on the proposals, Mr Sanders said: "Is not the prize here the fact that a free press will still be able to expose wrongdoing, but not at the expense of trashing people's lives?"