Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

State control of the Press would set newspapers back three centuries

Twice a day, at 11am and 4.15pm, the Editor of the Belfast Telegraph summons his senior executives to a conclave in his office. 'Conference' (the definite article fell off long ago) is where section editors - News, Features, Sport, Photographic - pitch their thoughts about the next day's paper. Ideas are run up flagpoles; kites are flown.

Typically, the news-list is a mixed bag - the latest slanging match at the Executive, a crooked businessman in court, football transfer news. Stories that survive the test of fire end up in the paper. You never hear about the ones that don't.

Most days, there is something on the list that would get the Editor, or the journalist involved, arrested in around half the countries on the World Press Freedom Index, published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. In the worst 10% - the 'Predators of the Free Press' - the consequences could be fatal.

Countries like Issaias Afeworki's Eritrea (179th and worst for Press freedom), Kim Jong-Un's North Korea (178th), or Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's Turkmenistan (177th).

One thing that unites this grisly band is their detestation of the free Press. It's a club David Cameron is going to be asked to join tomorrow.

"Scaremongering," supporters of statutory control of the Press will cry. And, of course, no one is suggesting that Belfast, or London, is going to turn into downtown Pyongyang any time soon.

But make no mistake: if Cameron's response to Lord Justice Leveson's long-awaited report is to bow to demands for 'statutory underpinning' of newspaper regulation, he will be taking one step closer to shackling Britain's free Press. Of course, no one who took even passing notice of Leveson's 100 days of public hearings could doubt that elements of the Press need to clean up their act.

The testimony of Sally Dowler alone, whose murdered daughter Milly's mobile phone was hacked by the News of the World, would have made a drill-sergeant weep.

But, aside from bringing closure to a few individuals who have our sympathy anyway (and satisfaction to MPs still smarting from revelations about their expenses), what will tearing up Britain's 300-year tradition of a free Press accomplish?

It won't increase the public's trust in newspapers for one thing. In the pre-internet age, public trust in the Press increased in inverse proportion to its distance from the legislature and executive. People trust the worldwide web today for much the same reason.

Statutory control of the Press also fails the test of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As The Times thundered in a leading article: "If any future regulator is run, overseen, empowered, or appointed by government, the politicians will loom over the Press. Even a rewriting of the regulatory system recognised by an Act of Parliament has its dangers. It gives politicians a foot in the door."

Statutory underpinning would also fail the proportionality test so beloved of legislators everywhere. It would be manifestly excessive to frame a law that hobbles the UK's 40,000-plus newsgatherers on the basis of the (alleged) illegal activities of a tiny handful of journalists on a now-closed title whose cases are, in any case, being dealt with by existing criminal law.

The Founding Fathers of the United States recognised the unique importance of a free Press in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the Press ..."

It fell to Owen Paterson, late of this parish, to summon the shade of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, this week: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Even with its fine tradition of journalistic independence, the US slumped 27 places on the World Press Freedom Index last year (to 47th), largely due to arrests of reporters covering Occupy Wall Street protests. The UK's global ranking (28th) could expect to see a similar downwards trajectory if the Press-shacklers get their way.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Phone hacking, blagging and bribing are all covered by existing law, so all Sir Brian Leveson needs properly to rule on is whether the newspaper industry's much-canvassed plans for replacing the Press Complaints Commission - 'PCC2' - go far enough, or if a new 'independent' regulator underpinned by statute is required.

PCC2 envisages retaining its predecessor's complaint-handling function, but adding an investigations branch to root out wrongdoing (hacking and bribing public officials). The new commission would also have the power to impose swingeing fines (up to £1m) on newspapers that step out of line. PCC2's five-member board would comprise a chairman and two industry representatives (nominated by the proprietors) and two lay (non-Press) members.

Lay members would also form a majority on the adjudication committee which arbitrates on complaints.

PCC2 may have its critics and it would need to demonstrate a genuine willingness to listen to voices outside of newspapers's own boardrooms. But better that than a return to state control of the Press for the first time in three centuries.

There is a much-quoted line in Tom Stoppard's newspaper drama Night and Day (1978), which seems to sum up how many people feel about the media: "I'm with you on the free Press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." What is often forgotten, though, is its context.

Jacob, an idealistic young reporter, is chatting up Ruth, who once had a bad experience with a tabloid newspaper.

He's concerned at a co-worker's desire to see newspapers regulated by a committee of trade union worthies (this was 1978 after all): "Once you establish the machinery, it'll be there for someone else to use. Drum you out if you're too Left-wing, or not Left-wing enough, or the wrong colour, or something."

But why, Ruth demands, should journalists - of all people - be allowed to regulate their own affairs: "If some group got control of the Law Society, they'd be just as free to have only right-thinking solicitors. What then?"

"Then you'd really need a free Press. Otherwise, you may never find out about it."

David Cameron: take note.

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