Leader: Against state regulation of the press

The introduction of state regulation, however minimal, would be neither just nor necessary.

Newspapers are displayed on a stand outside a newsagent on November 28, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

The British press has long been allowed to regulate itself but in recent years it has appeared entirely incapable of doing so. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) proved impotent as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded and as individuals such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies were casually traduced. Established to act as a watchdog, it has too often operated as a gentleman’s club, run by the media, for the media.

In view of this, a significant body of opinion now argues that any new regulatory regime must be enshrined in statute. If the Leveson report, which was published soon after we went to press, recommends reform along these lines, it will likely enjoy the support of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and at least 70 Conservative MPs: a political coalition large enough to command a majority in the House of Commons. But the introduction of state regulation, however minimal, would be neither just nor necessary. By forcing newspapers to submit to the new regime, parliament would, in effect, reintroduce state licensing, a practice abolished in Britain in 1695 and incompatible with the principle of a free press. This, as John Wilkes declared in The North Briton in 1762, is “the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”. In those instances where abuse does occur, what is required is not state regulation but better enforcement of the existing law. Phone-hacking and bribery, for instance, are already illegal.

Journalists were once defined as those employed by a private or public media corporation, but in the age of the smartphone and the blog anyone can self-publish. Would “citizen journalists” be required to submit to the new state-backed regulator? If so, the system would prove unwieldy. If not, the print media, already in existential danger, would be further disadvantaged.

The spectacle of state regulation in Britain would also deal a hard blow to those fighting for press freedom in emerging democracies and dictatorships around the world. Fred M’membe, the editor of the Zambia Post, who has routinely been imprisoned on false charges of defamation, has warned that statutory controls in Britain would “spread through Africa like a firestorm”.

But if state regulation is unacceptable, then so too is the status quo. To begin the work of restoring public trust in the press, a new independent regulator, beholden to neither the industry nor the government, must be established. The body proposed by Lords Black and Hunt would go some way to fulfilling this need. Unlike the toothless PCC, the new regulator would have the power to launch investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to enforce membership through a system of binding contracts. And to ensure genuine accountability, the chair of the new regulator should not be drawn from the press and should be chosen under the Nolan rules guaranteeing transparency and fairness in public appointments.

Alongside this, the UK’s media ownership laws, a subject too often neglected during the Leveson inquiry, must be reformed. It was News International’s overweening dominance of the market that enabled it to remain above the law for so long. Even after the closure of the News of the World, the company still accounts for 34 per cent of UK newspaper circulation and, had it not been for the Milly Dowler phone-hacking allegations, News Corporation would surely have acquired full control of BSkyB to add to its HarperCollins book publishing empire. To ensure that no media organisation can ever wield such political power again, a cap should be placed on ownership as is the case in France.

If the phone-hacking scandal, the event that precipitated the Leveson inquiry, showed the press at its worst, it should not be forgotten that it also showed the press at its best. As the police cravenly echoed the News International line that “one rogue reporter” was responsible, it was left to journalists to expose the truth. It would be a cruel irony if they were now to be shackled by state regulation.