Can the press be controlled?

Lord Justice Leveson

The proposals from the Leveson inquiry into the behaviour of the British press, which reported last month, include the call for a legal backstop to independent regulation.  The Press Complaints Commission should be made tougher and more effective, and the courts should treat differently those newspapers that choose not to be members, to provide an incentive towards membership.

The newspapers don’t like the idea that Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, should become involved in regulating the press, too.  The press has been free from state interference since 1695, they say, and it should stay that way.  Existing laws should be sufficient to prevent abuses such as bribes paid to police officers, for example, as long as those laws are enforced.

Critics might ask why those laws have not been enforced (clue: to whom have the bribes been paid?), but it is beyond the scope of this website to comment on whether the press really can be trusted, or whether the intervention of a regulator will ruin everything.

Where this website can express a view, though, is whether regulating the British press is even possible.  (Read previous comments on privacy here.)

Of course everyone wants the press to behave better.  We want the press to behave decently in its pursuit of stories (no more forced entry into the homes of the recently bereaved, for example), and to take proper care that what it says is true, correcting errors whenever appropriate.  There are laws that govern certain aspects of this, such as on harassment and incitement and libel, but there is a whole range of activities that we don’t want the press to engage in but which should nevertheless remain legal.  The Press Complaints Commission was supposed to regulate these, but the PCC never did a very good job.  Too often it judged public complaints about the press by the standards of the press rather than by the standards of the public, but a revamped PCC might deal with this better.

But membership of the PCC is voluntary, and can only be voluntary, for much of our media now comes from outside the UK.  This is what I mean by whether it is possible to regulate the press.

The idea that there is such a thing as a British newspaper or even a British journalist is now out of date.  Newspapers depend increasingly on their online versions, and their online versions can be based anywhere.  The biggest news websites in America are those of the Guardian and the Daily Mail, both based in Britain.  Is there such a thing as the British press?

And there are blogs now that attract bigger readership than the newspapers.  When does a blogger become a journalist?  Journalists are simply doing, to a wider audience, what we all of us do every day.  One of the characteristics of democracy is that people are allowed within the law to say what they like.  Journalists are people too.

As Hugo Rifkind put it

The Fourth Estate is no longer an estate. Its borders are not discrete. It’s a collection of big houses surrounded by smaller houses and an endless hinterland of tents.

So the internationalisation of the media and the democratisation of the media both serve to prevent regulation of the media.  No-one supposes that press regulation could be conducted at supranational level – media culture is very different from one country to another – so it effectively will not happen at all.

At best, we can hope for a restatement of civility by the newspapers in creating and adhering to a tougher code than that policed by the PCC.  There are some political problems that, in a democracy, in a globalising world, have no solution.  This is one of them.

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