Freedom of the British Press: Ironing Out Bad Behaviour

Freedom of the press has always been a fundamental aspect of British life. Whether discussing political or sporting decisions, the variety of opinions proffered by our journalists has served as a vital source of information. After all, there is nothing better than hearing different opinions on just where Ed Miliband ranks in the pantheon of great bacon sandwich eaters. Press freedom however, has its flaws – as we have seen with the treatment of the McCann family and numerous high profile celebrities, it seems the press have often excessively interfered in the private lives of many. Nobody’s lifestyles are fair game, not even Hugh Grant’s.

Issues of journalistic conduct have hit the front pages again after it was revealed that former Formula One guru, Max Mosley, donated £3.8m to Impress, a government-backed press regulator. A quick Google search into Max Mosley’s relationship with the press should evince to readers just why he’s so keen on the government to tighten its grip over the press: good ol’ Max has previously been accused of taking part in a ‘sick orgy’ by the now defunct News of the World tabloid. Juicy.

Who’s regulating what?

Whereas Impress is a government-backed regulator, the press has historically regulated itself. Currently, there are over 2,500 media outlets signed up to the press-funded Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), compared to the 50 who are now members of Impress. What does this all mean? Membership of a self-regulated body is self-explanatory: those who are signed up to IPSO may truly be free in the sense that they are under no restrictions as to what may be reported on, and how.

Reform of existing press regulations came to a head following the phone-hacking scandal, which ultimately contributed to the murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002. Though Piers Morgan is frequently reminded of the incident by Twitter trolls, he was not complicit in this scandal. Though some might argue Mr Morgan deserves such vitriol because, well, he’s Piers Morgan, the antipathy shown towards him is reflective of the public mistrust in our free-speaking journalists.

Why is the industry against a government press regulator?

Many perceive the notion of government control of the media’s checks and balances as their way of leveling the score after years of relentless coverage into MPs’ private lives. Much unlike what politicians say, there may be an element of truth to this. More importantly however, the industry’s main gripe concerns a yet to be implemented piece of legislation – Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

Section 40 states that any publication not enrolled with an approved regulator (in this case, Impress) must pay the full costs of a libel or privacy suit brought against them in court, regardless of whether they win or lose. Cue alarm bells. Even by the government’s standards, that’s a fairly uncompromising position to take. The effect of this is to shift the onus on publishers to think carefully before reporting any news story; it is a mechanism designed to prompt publishers to leave IPSO and join the state-backed regulator, whilst enhancing journalistic standards. In other words, less reckless reporting on Harvey Price in order to avoid paying a big price.

Media chiefs have branded Section 40 an attempt to ‘blackmail’ the media into submitting to a government regulator. The move means that the state effectively can now oversee the regulation of the press – shades of a dystopian Orwellian society, in the eyes of some. There is a genuine concern that implementation of Section 40 may create a chilling effect on press freedom, because publishers may eschew publications of certain matters for fear of paying substantial legal costs. Moreover, the future of local newspapers would be in doubt as they are unlikely to benefit from being bankrolled by the likes of Max Mosley. In this sense, there is a very real prospect of Section 40 operating in a draconian manner.

Will press freedom be protected?

In considering all this, one must query whether operationalisation of Section 40 will undermine press freedom in practice. Press freedom has always been such that any potential punishment for the publication of controversial information is retrospective. TCC believes that this is the key feature that will ensure the integrity of free speech: media outlets will always be free to publish what they wish, but will face punishment for content that crosses the lines (just like Frank Lampard’s strike against Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup).

A shakeup has been inevitable for some time because it has become clear that despite a well-structured media code of conduct, implementation of it by the industry has been woefully disappointing. Under Impress, as stipulated by the Royal Charter, a low-cost arbitration arm is provided for. There is enough incentive for publishers to join this whilst knowing that they too are free to publish material as they wish without the threat of facing burdensome legal costs.

More to the point, there should be no question of government influence in the process: the Royal Charter doesn’t actually detail the work of the regulator; it merely sets the structure of the recognition body (which selected Impress as the regulator). Further, there is a ‘double-lock’ provision inserted into the Royal Charter whereby any amendments are subject to a two-thirds super majority by both Houses of Parliament in order to effect any changes. What this shows is that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent undue government interference in the freedom of the press, and this is to be welcomed.

Some concluding thoughts: Does TCC qualify as a media publisher? Given that we haven’t signed up to Impress, nor can we afford to fund any libel litigation, we apologise in advance to Piers Morgan for any possible defamatory statement(s) aimed towards him…

By Kamran Khan

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