Fri - 15.12.2017

Independent regulation: the future of the press in Britain?

Independent regulation: the future of the press in Britain?

How can a country make sure that its press behaves responsibly? Government regulation compromises freedom of speech. Self-regulation can't always be trusted, as revelations about the unethical and illegal practices from parts of the British press, which continue to be discussed by the Leveson inquiry, prove.

Now the UK culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt and the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke are advocating a third way: a powerful independent regulatory body.

Speaking at a parliamentary Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, part of an inquiry that was launched to deal with controversy over super-injunctions, Hunt stated: "I think that it is clear that nobody wants statutory regulation of the press" and said that such regulation would be "completely the wrong direction to go".

Clarke was equally vocal in his opposition to direct government regulation of news organizations, maintaining: "no one has so far made a clear case for a new law."

But Hunt also was suspicious self-regulation from the press, noting "self-regulation is very often characterised as something which is very similar to the current system and clearly some very significant failings have emerged on that."

The third way that Hunt suggests is "industry-led independent regulation". He stated that the news industry should "come up with a structure that will have [widespread] confidence and has proper sanction-making powers." In other words, an enhanced and independent PCC.

But how could this kind of body be created, without succumbing to the same problems that the PCC faced - the fact that news organisations weren't obliged to be members, and that the regulator did not act as a deterrent to prevent phone hacking and other illegal activity in the press?

Hunt suggested that, while a new press regulator should remain independent, it could be supported by law to ensure news organisations signed up. 'There's a difference between statutory regulation of content - which no one wants and which Parliament would resist - and giving statutory underpinning to a body that is run [by an independent body]," he stated. Hunt raised the possibility that there could be a financial penalty for press outlets that refused to sign up to the new body.

The culture secretary's remarks are part of a wider conversation about press regulation in Britain, as the Leveson inquiry rumbles on. The Times, whose editor appears before the panel today, has published a long leading article, likewise calling for an independent regulatory body with greater powers than the Press Complaints Commission.

"The new regulator needs to be more than just a clearing house for complaints: it needs to have investigative and punitive powers too," asserts the Times article. This would mean the power to launch its own inquiries and issue substantial fines.

However, the paper is firm that "a statutory backstop to independent regulation would either be meaningless or it would mean government regulation." It sees such regulation as posing major press freedom concerns: "if any future regulator is run, overseen, empowered or appointed by government, then politicians will loom over the press."

The Times has three suggestions of how an independent regulator could work: regulated papers could have zero VAT (an idea also floated at the parliamentary committee), they could sign a commercial contract with the regulator, or advertisers and publishers could sign a reciprocal agreement to support one another's regulations.

In answer to the freedom of speech issues that this regulation could cause, The Times says that rather than just sanctioning papers, the Leveson inquiry should empower reporting with "a more widely enforceable public interest defence".

Yet The Times' position has drawn criticism from some quarters. Roy Greenslade of The Guardian challenges the article, calling its remedy for press regulation failures "weak" and saying that it leaves important questions unanswered - who would appoint the regulatory body? How would its fines work without the backing of the law? How would press freedom concerns be addressed?

The idea of strong independent regulation has been harshly criticized by some. When Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre spoke at the Leveson inquiry last October, he broadly attacked the idea, asking "who choses these "independent" regulators ... Who will guard the guards themselves?"

Answering these questions will not be easy. In a lecture last November, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger acknowledged that when it came to establishing a new regulatory body "the devil's in the detail". When it comes to press regulation, getting fine tuning right will be key.

Sources: The Times, Press Gazette, The Guardian (1) (2) (3) The Daily Mail, The Telegraph,, Editors Weblog


Hannah Vinter


2012-01-17 16:14

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