Redefining a ‘Free’ Press: Watching the Watchdogs

Smith Square in London is a collection of Georgian buildings sheltering government ministries, European Commission offices – and, because the square is around the corner from Parliament, countless lobbyists. Until recently, both the Conservative and Labour party headquarters were in Smith Square. William Thomas Stead, the father of British tabloid journalism, lived there until he sailed for New York on the Titanic in 1912. Given its proximity to the seat of political power, it seems appropriate that a Smith Square art gallery this summer featured an exhibition picturing two “compelling and competing visions of the press.” The contents of one room, designed by a journalist, make the argument for the continued protection of a free press. An adjoining room, prepared by victims of Britain’s recent phone-hacking scandal, presents the case for a more accountable press by showing how “today’s press has hurt and damaged us.”

These competing visions originated in the publication of the 2,000-page Leveson report (named after Brian Leveson, a highranking judge in the British courts) last November, the result of an exhaustive examination of the phone-hacking scandal and the symbiotic relationships between journalists, the police and public officials. Criminal charges have been filed against many, the News of the World was closed by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and news media ethics have been subjected to close scrutiny.

“Reactions to Leveson have been both impassioned and highly divisive,” the gallery’s website designers noted, with classic English understatement.

Britain has enjoyed a broad form of press freedom since 1690, when government licensing of publications ceased. Critics of Leveson suggest that press freedom faces its greatest threat since then. Leveson, however, argued that this is a new era, and that new standards of press performance are needed. The problem, to Leveson, is that the commercial culture has led “time and time again, (to) serious and uncorrected failures within parts of the national press that may have stretched from the criminal to the indefensibly unethical, from passing off fiction as fact to paying lip service to accuracy. … In doing so, far from holding power to account, in these regards the press is exercising unaccountable power which nobody holds to account.”

How might the press be held to account? This is the nub: Do you still have a free press if any part of
press performance and enforce corrective measures? Leveson, among his many recommendations, proposed a “voluntary, independent, selforganised regulatory system,” backed by statutory authority, be developed.

It was time for government to recognize that it had a legal duty to protect, not restrict, freedom of the press – and, accordingly, it needed to develop a regulatory agency that had an “appropriate degree of independence from the industry, coupled with satisfactory powers to handle complaints, promote and enforce standards, and deal with dispute resolution.” In other words, the power of law should be used, in collaboration with the news media’s attempts to regulate themselves, to develop an independent (nongovernmental) monitor.

The political establishment accepted part of this advice. After weeks of torturous negotiations, Prime Minister David Cameron announced in March that the leaders of the three major political parties agreed that a Royal Charter was the solution.

A charter, granted by the Queen through her Privy Council, would empower a new press commission to monitor media performance. This would obviate the need for Parliament to adopt a law that regulated the press. (A Royal Charter was used in a similar manner in establishing the BBC to protect its editorial independence.)

The new press monitor would replace the Press Complaints Commission, a sort of watered-down accountability council, which had been an unmitigated failure, according to Leveson. It would comprise 12 members: seven independents (public), and five representing the news industry. It would be funded by the Press Standards Board of Finance (Pressbof), the organization that funds the current PCC. It would have the authority to force apologies from newspapers deemed to have committed serious mistakes or ethical violations. It also would provide whistleblower protection for journalists forced by their employers to commit unethical acts. In turn, the press monitor would be audited by a “recognition panel,” yet another body that would monitor the press monitor. Publishers would be free to not participate in press monitor investigations, but they would be open to punitive (exemplary) damages in legal proceedings. Finally, the monitor should develop an arbitration (non-judicial) tribunal that would hear and dispose of many complaints against newspapers without incurring heavy legal expenses.

The newspaper corporations quickly rejected this plan and announced they were sending their own Royal Charter to the Privy Council for approval. The industry’s version cut out the whistleblower; tried to further insulate the press monitor from political interference by specifying that the charter could be amended only by the industry, press monitor and recognition panel acting unanimously (which was said to establish a “triple lock” guarantee that the press monitor would fulfill its mission); weakened the criteria for forcing apologies from newspapers; and gave the industry veto power over appointments to the press monitor. This final feature eventually was dropped when the Guardian, Financial Times and Independent newspapers failed to support the industry’s Royal Charter. The industry charter also opposed the arbitration panels on behalf of more than a thousand local and regional newspapers, which incur about 40 percent of the complaints taken to PCC, fearing this would provide fertile ground for money-hungry attorneys wanting to file complaints against erring newspapers.

And here the matter sits. Officially, both charters have been referred to the Secretary of Culture, Media and Sport to determine which charter should be sent to the Privy Council for the Queen’s approval. In the meantime, individuals and groups are weighing in on the war of words. Hacked Off, the organization of victims in the phone-hacking scandal, supports the political Royal Charter, and said the industry charter “demonstrates once again that the press thinks it is above the law.” The director of Liberty, a civil rights organization, said the whole notion of a Royal Charter for the press is “bizarre: an overly complex and bureaucratic system.” The Committee to Protect Journalists observed from New York that the political Royal Charter is “counter to the bedrock principles of democracy.” The New York Times argued that these unwieldy regulations “would chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and Internet sites.” Public opinion surveys show readers both favor and oppose the industry’s Royal Charter, and both trust and distrust the government to develop a solution to this problem. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, recently called upon the government to reopen negotiations to try to reach an outcome to this standoff.

Meanwhile, the rough-and-tumble world of British journalism goes on, with stings, exposures and aggressive investigations, such as the Guardian’s NSA surveillance reporting. Whether Leveson’s efforts will change this world is anybody’s guess.

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