Press v Politicians

A full-page apology ad published in British ne...

A full-page apology ad published in British newspapers by News International.  (14 July 2011). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Newspaper journalists and politicians are amongst the most skilled selectors of competing truths on the planet.  So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing quite a few shameless examples as the end game of the UK’s press regulation reformation approaches.  Here are a few of them:

“This will end three hundred years of press freedom in Britain”

This statement suggests press freedom is a binary condition — “You either have a free press or you don’t,” claims Boris Johnson.  But journalists are already subject to plenty of restrictions: they are not allowed to write falsehoods about us, bribe our policemen or hack our phones, and they are punished in the courts if they do.  Preventing them from hounding grief-stricken members of society and forcing them to acknowledge complaints merely curtails their freedom a few degrees more.  Crucially, nothing in the proposed system of regulation would limit their freedom to express truth or opinion — however unpalatable to government.

“We want to stand up for ordinary people against the press barons”

Very noble and true up to a point, but it paints a misleading picture of the Press.  Most of the local and specialist newspapers and magazines that will be subject to the new rules are not owned or run by anything approximating a “baron”.

“Under the Royal Charter, politicians will be able to impose new regulations on journalists any time two thirds of parliamentarians agree (as they might well if we criticise their expenses again).”

Quite true, but it implies that this is some chilling new state of affairs.  For hundreds of years, the government has been in a position to impose new regulations on the Press (or anyone else) with a simple majority in Parliament.  If anything, with this higher legislative hurdle, it will be harder for politicians to regulate the Press in the future.

“The new Press regulator will be voluntary”

Voluntary in the same way that cooperation with the Mafia is voluntary.  It is true that newspapers don’t have to sign up to the proposed regime, but if they don’t they will be liable for all costs in any libel action against them, even if they win the case.  This probably won’t worry the “press barons”, but it will be very painful for smaller newspapers who have been wrongly sued.  Politicians talk about “incentives” to join the new regime — others might talk about “an offer they can’t refuse”.

“This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians”

Well, yes, but who else can create and implement a statute but our elected representatives?  Isn’t that what they’re for?  This truth neatly ignores the fact that the Royal Charter will establish an independent regulator, with members chosen by an Appointments Committee devoid of serving MPs (and editors).  The body with the real power will have no politicians anywhere near it.  And the new code of conduct imposed on editors will be drawn up not by politicians but by the newspapers themselves.  MPs might determine the architecture of the new regime, but it will be policed by independents according to rules devised by the Press.



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