Press Regulation: Another Form of State Control?

State Regulation of the Press: The Argument Against

Ian Hislop

The view propagated by Ian Hislop is particularly significant. It suggests that state regulation of the press allows the state to maintain an element of control over the press thus inhibiting and limiting them from reporting the state with the same vigour and fearlessness that is required. To do otherwise would negate the notion of the press as public watchdogs who exist as a “means of defending the country against corrupt government, by publicising the actions of its rulers”.[1] This ties in nicely with the assertion put forward by William Blackstone who argued that “the liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state…..  Every man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiment he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press[2]”.

Hislop’s feeling of wariness to this is further highlighted by drawing a parallel to the predicament in France where the press were hamstrung in their bid to expose the fact that “the minister in charge of raising taxes was paying no taxes”.[3] Building upon that, it foreshadows a dangerous scenario where political interference would be rife in the press which runs the risk of ruining all that is good about it. The Press are a very important part of society in holding the state and politicians to account. They help in ensuring that the rules and regulations governing society are held to the highest standard. By allowing statutory regulation, there is a sensible case being made that this detracts from allowing them flourish in their role of pursuing news that would interest the public in gauging the usefulness and merits of those tasked with the role of governing society.  This is the argument proposed by Adrian Jeakings in stating that “a free press cannot be free if it’s dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognized by the state”.[4] State regulation comes across as a mechanism that weakens the position of the press in fulfilling its obligation to society as an independent barometer of public opinion.  The fear of legitimizing intervention from the political class remains one of the biggest fears of the media community. The New York Times’ captures this fear when it declared, in an editorial analyzing the proposed regulation process suggested by the Leveson inquiry, that “The kind of press regulations proposed by British politicians would do more harm than good because an unfettered press is essential to democracy.” [5] The editorial does not stop there. It goes a step further by highlighting a flaw in the argument of the school proposing state regulation. They point out sensibly that it was “journalists at newspapers like The Guardian and The Times, not the police, who first brought to light the scope and extent of hacking by British tabloids. It would be perverse if regulations enacted in response to this scandal ended up stifling the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that brought it to light in the first place”.  Hislop raises a crucial point in suggesting that the main bone of contention should not be the regulation of the media by the state but a more effective system of law enforcement. “Contempt of court is illegal. Phone tapping is illegal, Policemen taking money is illegal. All of these things don’t need a code; we already have laws for them”, he submitted. In essence, the point being made is that instead of regulating the press directly, the relevant laws that apply to errant press operations and behavior should henceforth be tightened and enforced more stringently by the law enforcement authorities.

There is also an argument that by legitimizing state regulation in the United Kingdom, cognizance is lost of her role as a world super power that must be in the vanguard of setting best practices globally. Setting such a dangerous precedent as state regulation is to encourage other countries with weaker democratic traditions and institutions to embrace punitive measures to suppress all forms of opposition or resistance.  This can be exemplified by alluding to the climate in Turkey where up to 76 journalists and editors have been jailed on the basis of violating an anti-terror law “so mistily drawn that almost any reporting of what is said or done can be termed incitement and land you behind bars.”[6]  If the United Kingdom decided to toe the line of state regulation, it has to keep in mind the role it plays on a global scale and recognize that it cannot be viewed as being privy to limiting the press. By virtue of this status, what is required is a degree of pro activeness, not reactiveness which this intention of shackling the press comes across as; in setting the trends that the rest of the world follows.

Another argument proposed by opponents of state regulation is the sense that any attempts at censoring or managing the activities of the media would result in a chilling effect on freedom of speech. This was the fear of Times Editor, James Harding when he appeared at the Leveson inquiry. The crux of his argument being that by opening the door to state regulation of the press, there would be the risk of inhibiting free speech, that hallmark of democratic and liberal societies.  The argument is that by creating a state regulated press, there would be an increased fear and reluctance for people to exercise their rights to freedom of speech.  This would contradict Article 19 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights that enshrines the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”   Lord MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions goes further by arguing that “the risk of statutory regulation is not only  that it may have a chilling effect, it may encourage deference. I don’t think we want a deferential press any more than we want a censored press”[7]. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education with a journalistic background echoes George Orwell when he states “By definition, freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time”[8]. This plays to the notion that state regulation would make a puppet out of the press and limit its powers in asking questions that need to be asked, subsequently portraying it as awestruck by the political ruling class. This view is further accentuated by the remarks of Fraser Nelson, Editor of the Spectator that “Already I as an editor am getting MP’s and Ministers calling me up to order that I discipline writers who displease them or take articles down in a way that they wouldn’t have even a year ago. The feeling is going around amongst politicians that now, finally, they are going to be able to get their say in how the press behave in Britain and it’s not a good step for British liberty”[9]. This highlights the dangers that loom should state regulation of the press come to life. The assertion that “a noisy, raucous press is good for democracy and so good for Britain” [10] is apt as it once again conforms to the principle of holding the State and powerful people to account. State regulation of the press disallows this and it should serve as a reminder as to why any attempts to exercise undue influence or control over the modus operandi of the press should be disallowed.   I agree with this notion that provided the press fulfil the basic requirement that “whilst being free to be partisan, it must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”,[11] any other form of regulation is unnecessary. The state should be scared of the press and not the other way conforming to Thomas Jefferson’s view that “the only security of all is in a free press”.  [12]

*This is the second of a three part series.

Part III

Part I

[1] Hannah Baker and Simon Burrows, ‘Press, Politics and the Public Sphere in Europe and North America 1760-1820’  (CUP, 1st edition, 2002) p 101

[2] Ibid

[3] Michael Seamark and Nick McDermott, ‘Private Eye editor Ian Hislop defends the freedom of the press saying current laws are sufficient if properly enforced’ , Daily Mail (18th January 2012) (Accessed 19th March 2013)

[4] Stephen Castle and Alan Cowell, ‘British Newspapers Challenge New Press Rules’, New York Times (March 19th 2013) (Accessed 20th March 2013)

[5] ‘Britain’s Press Crackdown’, New York Times (March 19th 2013) (Accessed 20th March 2013)

[6] Peter Preston, ‘State media regulation? Ask the reporters in Turkey’s jails how it works’, The Observer (9th December 2012) (Accessed 21st March 2013)

[7] Steven Swinford, ‘Britain needs “noisy and raucous press”, senior Lawyer warns, The Telegraph (London, 18th November 2012) (Accessed 20th March 2013)

[8] Ibid

[9] William Turvill, ‘ Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson already feeling effects of possible state intervention in press’, Press Gazette (London, 9 November 2012) (Accessed 20th March 2013)

[10] Steven Swinford, ‘Britain needs “noisy and raucous press”, senior Lawyer warns, The Telegraph (London, 18th November 2012) (Accessed 20th March 2013)

[11] Ursula Smartt, Media & Entertainment Law (1st edition, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2011) p 16

[12] ‘ Leader: Press reform is too important to be cooked up in late night deal’, The New Statesman (March 21 2013) (Accessed 27th March 2013)