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Posted On June 13, 2013 By In Burnt Stew, Media

Press Regulation: Absolutely Necessary?

State Regulation of the Press: The Argument for

In considering the merits and demerits of state regulation of the press, one argument proposed is the feeling that as the press has evolved, it has taken on too much power and reached a stage where it feels untouchable. The argument being validated to a large extent by the phone hacking scandals and the constant arrests of News International affiliated journalists. Using this reasoning, the belief is that the powers of the press have to be curbed in order to ensure the past mistakes are not repeated and also to bring to an end the era of self-governance. This explains the viewpoint offered by Holly Weldin when she suggests that “while corporations might fight against the ‘nanny state’ and its restrictions, if the last year or so has taught us anything it is that the media needs a baby sitter, and the baby cannot babysit itself”. [1] By saying such, it underscores the importance of the press being held accountable and responsible for its conduct and behaviour. It can be argued that this allows the press to be checked by the state thus creating an inverse of the status quo where the press are the one checking on the state leading into the principle of checks and balances.

 

Another viewpoint that could be considered is centred on using the United States as a cautionary tale to the British media. In America, there is no system of regulation whatsoever with journalists not being required to belong to professional bodies or organizations belonging to press councils or complaint commissions. As Mike Farrell states “the absence of these responsibilities and the performance of the media have undermined public support for the First Amendment and for journalists. A seemingly unending list of public opinion surveys has found that the public holds journalists and the press in low regard”[2].  This echoes the view of John C. Merill who stated that “Criticism of the media is crashing in from all sides. Journalism and its practitioners increasingly are being cast as social villains, dispensing superficial, negative and sensational information harmful to the health of society”. [3] Building from this, it is quite logical to suggest that there is need to hold the press to higher standards of conduct to ensure that the role they play to “provide a check on all aspects of public life”[4]is not undermined or trivialized and this can be done by state regulation. This can be interpreted as expressive of a desire to keep the media on their toes in the pursuit of excellence from them. This portrays the press as purveyors of a culture built on an improper set of morals and ethical guidelines who have failed to revel in their role of social responsibility and acting in a measured, balanced and sensible manner in shaping the scope of public opinion. [5]

 

It is worthy of note that the calls for state regulation of the press are not a new or recent phenomenon. It is something which historically has been commonplace as “at least once every decade since the Second World War, parliamentarians have threatened legislative controls”[6]. This would suggest that there’s a history of unethical behaviour best exemplified by “a stream of complaints about breach of privacy, harassment of individuals and their families, inaccurate reporting and intrusion”[7] amongst the press corps which can only truly be resolved by the politicians stepping up in a bid to curb the powers the press have been able to take upon themselves. This is a mode through which decisive action is taken in order to straighten up the act of the press. This notion can be validated by the conclusion of the report of the Calcutt Committee on Privacy and Related Matters in June 1990 in which the press were essentially placed on probation as they were “given one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work”. [8]It is safe to say, two decades later, the fact that this is still a bone of contention must surely be viewed as a great indictment on the media and its conduct thus helping further the idea that unless the state steps in to govern and regulate the conduct of the press, it would continue to occupy space in the sphere of public opinion and debate.

A Way Forward- Restructuring the Press Complaints Commission

The diminishing power of the Press Complaints Commission is best exacerbated by the Sarah Cox v The People case where the plaintiff despite gaining an apology through the Commission went on to sue. This was the first time this ever happened and also underlines the viewpoint that the Commission has not done enough to raise journalistic standards. Being proactive, I propose that instead of seeking state regulation of the press, the sensible option would be to restructure the Press Complaints Commission by strengthening it to compensate for the present lack of bite, indecisiveness and powerlessness in ensuring the press is held to account when it falls short. This would draw minimally from the proposed regulation. To successfully achieve this, I recommend that the ambit of the complaints commission be extended beyond mere apology orders to genuine sanctions such as fines and suspensions for press practitioners when they are found to fall short in the moral stakes. In a sense, this would be maintaining the status quo whereby the state influence is minimal but goes a step further by ensuring that the press are well regulated by strengthening the mechanism designed to act as a check and balance. It would also oversee a greater sense of responsibility amongst journalists on the basis that violation of the code of conduct would be punished thus serving as a way of deterring bad journalism. I would also propose that it is run and controlled by a select group of journalists. By doing this, it would help deter any possibilities of a chilling effect on the press conduct knowing that it works on a peer assessed basis thus feeding the notion that they are being judged by their colleagues who from their experiences would have a greater understanding of the intricacies of the journalistic world and are better posited to decide what can be classified under as ethical or unethical conduct.

 

Conclusion

My personal opinion is in line with that of Hislop in suggesting that the route of state regulation of the press is a very dangerous one that limits the impact the press can make in fulfilling its role as a check upon the political field. I am reminded of the assertion that “the older British tradition is just that: let truthful speech counter lies, let good newspapers call out shoddy ones (as they did in the phone hacking case). The remedy for unethical journalism is good journalism- not government intervention”. [9] I would argue that this raises a very prominent point. Free speech can be viewed as one of Britain’s greatest contributions to world civilization it would be a shame to see it go because of the poor enforcement of existing laws. In fact, the issue at stake should be the enforcement of those existing laws instead of creating a new one under the guise of it being ‘statutorily underpinned’ and inhibiting the freedom of speech: one of the essential human rights. I also believe that any attempts by the political ruling class to regulate the press effectively serves as a way of exercising control over the press thus allowing politicians become an authority unto themselves. Whilst that could come as an overly negative assertion, I have no shadow of doubt that this would be the inevitable end result after the law undergoes its natural evolutionary process. As is wont to happen, allowing this form of state regulation can be seen as the laying of foundations of a society which over the next century where the power of the press as check on the ruling class would be severely hamstrung and diminished suggesting that the democratic principles which we cherish and want to see protected would be effectively thrown to the dustbin. I buy wholeheartedly into the debate that politicians should be the ones respectful of the press and not the other way and anything that could undermine or negate this should be discouraged and kept at the barest minimum.

*This is the concluding part of the series.

Part I

Part II


[1] Holly Weldin, Leveson and Regulation of the Press: For or Against? http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2012/11/29/leveson-and-regulation-of-the-press-for-or-against (Accessed 23rd March 2013)

[2] Tim Crook, Comparative Media Law and Ethics (1st edition, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2010) p 295

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Mike Feintuck, Mike Varney, Media Regulation, Public Interest and the Law (2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press 2008)  p 57

[6] Tom Crone, Law and the Media (4th edition, Focal Press, 2002) p 250

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Andrew Sullivan, ‘Britannia In Chains’, The Sunday Times (London, 24th March 2013)

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