A free press is the cornerstone of a free society. Yet many of Britain’s politicians, some of whom have been badly bruised by the expenses scandal, seek to limit press freedom.
Currently, politicians have no power over the press – journalists cannot be threatened with censorship. However, since freedom of the press is not protected by a written constitution, there is always a risk that our liberties and freedom of speech could be lost.
The newspaper industry is self-regulated. In an attempt to pre-empt the conclusions of the Leveson Inquiry, which is due to publish a report at the end of this month, it has proposed a new body with the power to launch investigations and levy fines of up to £1m. The Inquiry is likely to find that a new and independent press regulator should be established.
Letter from the party
An influential group of over 40 Conservatives, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Caroline Spelman, wrote a joint letter to The Guardian saying that the newspaper industry’s proposals ‘risk being an unstable model destined to fail.’ The letter speaks of a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to regulate the press. There is even a rumour that David Cameron actively encouraged the group. If this is true, then the threat to press freedom is very serious indeed.
The letter states that, to be credible, any new regulator ‘must be independent of the press as well as from politicians.’ The best replacement for the Press Complaints Commission, they argue, is statutory regulation.
The creeping nature of regulation
The irony is that, whilst the authors seemingly prize a free press, they are advocating a path which can only erode it. They seem to believe that a free press can endure alongside a ‘small degree’ of state regulation. The argument is that a small amount of statutory regulation will not have a negative impact in itself, but will serve to deter editors from considering the use of inappropriate methods such as phone-hacking.
However, Britain either has a free press or it doesn’t – there is no ‘third way.’ The danger is that even a small amount of statutory regulation can be increased further along the line. The regulatory framework will almost certainly be tightened, introducing French-style laws on privacy and the public interest. This will be particularly tempting for politicians who have been caught up in scandals or other embarrassing exposés.
One may argue that, since the broadcast media are controlled by a statutory body, why should the press be any different? The distinction is that people actively choose to buy a newspaper, whereas television is readily available. There should be regulated standards for television programmes because children have access.
In the public interest
Allowing Parliament to decide what is, and what is not, in the public interest would create many problems. Newspaper editors know which stories sell papers, whereas politicians may view the same stories as not being noteworthy. Further, there is a real risk of Parliament using the ‘public interest’ test to cover up scandal. It is questionable whether the revelations about MPs’ expenses would have come to light had statutory regulation been in place – politicians arguing that the stories would damage the public’s faith in its representatives, leading to apathy and the rise of extremist groups etc.
Although we talk about a ‘free press,’ there are limits on what journalists can and can’t do. The rule of law still applies to them, and criminal charges may be brought if they act outside the law.
An unreliable media
A further point, and one which cannot be ignored, involves ‘new media’ journalism. The public will lose trust in the written press if stories must first be checked over by the government. This will push people away from print and mainstream media towards less reliable internet postings. Unfortunately, so-called social media ‘scoops’ are often based on rumour and conjecture. One only needs to look back on the recent debacle involving ITV’s Philip Schofield. Schofield put a list of names of alleged paedophiles he had found, from the internet, to the Prime Minister. He did so despite there being no evidence, other than mere speculation, and in what some branded ‘trial by Twitter.’
The current system of press self-regulation is clearly not perfect. The Press Complaints Commission must be given more powers to investigate, and punish, those journalists who have brought their profession into disrepute. However, any step toward statutory regulation, is a step too far.