In Wake Of NewsCorp Scandal, UK Says Press Must Be Regulated… But Free… But Not Exactly
from the completely-independent,-except-for-all-this-other-stuff dept
Between the UK’s onerous libel laws, its insistence on “protecting” freedom of speech and press while attaching a million exceptions to this “freedom,” and the recent phone-hacking scandal that saw Rupert Murdoch’s papers crossing lines that even the most loathsome of hacky tabloids had yet to cross, one often wonders exactly what the hell is going on over there.
Apparently, a few people in the UK are wondering that as well. A nine-month inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics” of the journalism business has yielded one potential solution, which should have quotes thrown around it immediately. paidContent reports that Lord Justice Leveson, who has been dealing with the issues surrounding the NewsCorp case, has a suggestion: independent regulation.
The UK government must legislate to establish a new press “self-regulation” body — independent of both publishers and politicians but overseen by media regulator Ofcom — because newspapers have “wreaked havoc” in the lives of innocents, says the nine-month inquiry report into the culture, practice and ethics of the business.
Lord Justice Leveson, who has been hearing issues including the “hacking” of mobile phones for news stories, said the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC), comprised of newspaper editors, is “not actually a regulator at all”. And he has rejected news publishers’ alternative suggestion of binding themselves to ethical standards by commercial contracts.
Instead, he is advising the government to legislate the creation of a new independent body to promote “high standards” and safeguard individuals’ rights, run by a chair and a board who will hold publishers to a code.
It’s hard to imagine the words “legislate,” “independent” and “safeguard individuals’ rights” all working together peaceably. While certain newspapers certainly haven’t given the impression that they’re capable of holding themselves to ethical standards, it hardly seems like Plan B should be legislated into existence.
You also have to wonder which “individuals” are going to have their rights safeguarded. The use of injunctions (and the double-secret “Super Injunction“) and the general encouragement of powerful individuals to use very amicable libel laws to shut down criticism or exposure of uncouth behavior doesn’t really set the stage for protecting the rights of journalists. Leveson “addresses” this issue… by passing the buck to legislators.
Leveson is leaving the definition of that code and the implementation of the new body to whomever Prime Minister David Cameron, should he follow the recommendation, might appoint to set them up. But Leveson suggests the code should outline what constitutes “public interest” – a thorny topic on which newspapers and others often disagree.
Well, good luck with that. Those in the journalism field will certainly want to keep their rights safeguarded and those who prefer to tamp out criticism and unflattering reporting will certainly want to keep theirs “safe” as well. It all sounds very zero sum, which is probably why it’s being kicked down the road.
The Lord Justice is certainly correct that some newspapers have behaved reprehensibly. But it hardly follows that legislated “independent” regulation is the solution. Leveson wants to hand this over to Ofcom, which already regulates UK radio, telecommunications infrastructure and broadcasting standards. Certainly, Ofcom has the regulation experience, but it’s another egg in its already very loaded basket. Consolidation of regulatory power rarely turns out well. Levenson insists that this is not intended to grant the government control of the press:
“This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press: it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down.
“The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever.
“Nor would it give any rights to these entities to require newspapers to publish any material except insofar as it would require the recognised self-regulatory body to have the power to direct the placement and prominence of corrections and apologies in respect of information found, by that body, to require them.”
All well and good in theory, but the last paragraph is troubling. If this isn’t going to be a case of the government or its legislated independent regulator telling the press what to print, why the wording concerning “placement and prominence of corrections and apologies?” This sentence seems to indicate that certain individuals’ rights will be respected and safeguarded, if not more often, then definitely at a higher level. If papers offend the wrong person, someone will be there to tell them how much they should prostrate themselves, as well as where and in what font size.
Prime Minister David Cameron has responded… by kicking the issue right back.
“For the first time, we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.
“We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.
“In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
I believe the PM has misspoken. He must have meant “any additional legislation that has the potential to infringe on free speech and a free press.” I would certainly hope the outcome of the NewsCorp unpleasantness wouldn’t result in more limitations to the UK’s very limited speech and press. If anything defeats unpleasant speech, it’s more speech — not more regulation.