Best selling author Robert Harris has warned how stricter state regulation of the media could lead to miscarriages of justice similar to the Dreyfus affair.
Commenting on the debate over how the press should be controlled in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, he said: “Freedom of the press is a distinctly ugly thing, but on the other hand the countervailing forces are also. We see what happens when groups of people get behind closed doors to decide what people should know: that will lead to the sort of injustice we see here in the Dreyfus affair.”
Mr Harris 's latest novel is about Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish military officer who was convicted for spying for Germany and exiled to Devil's Island.
Letters published in the French press highlighted how the evidence against Dreyfus had been fabricated. He was eventually cleared of the charge and released.
Mr Harris told an audience at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that Dreyfus wou ld “probably have stayed on Devils Island” if the British g overnment ' s proposal for statutory regulation of the press had been in force.
He said similar letters today would not “be easy to print under the new regulations.”
The author admitted he had been appalled by some of the excesses of newspapers and their proprietors, but he still felt more comfortable with the idea of a free press than with those in the establishment making decisions in private.
“I would be very careful with tampering with this century - old freedom. It is in the ugliness of the press that its good work is done. If state decisions are allowed to take place without proper scrutiny then we are in trouble , ” he said.