‘Censorship’ fears as press report due

As they wait for this week’s Leveson report on press regulation, defenders of total freedom and advocates of tighter controls trade insults. Why are feelings running so high?

Hours from now, David Cameron will be handed a copy of Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the ethics of the British press and his proposals for tougher regulation of newspaper practices.

As the door to Number 10 closes on the messenger, the Prime Minister and his closest advisors will be plunged into emergency and very secret discussions. They will have only one day to prepare the Government’s official response before Leveson makes his Inquiry’s findings public on Thursday lunchtime.

Already, senior members of Mr Cameron’s cabinet have openly pledged their opposition to any statutory controls on press freedom. But his Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Labour opposition have said they will support the Inquiry’s recommendations ‘unless they are bonkers’, and dozens of Conservative backbenchers share their view. The Prime Minister is caught in a trap of his own making.

Mr Cameron set up the Inquiry when it emerged that the scandal of tabloids illegally hacking into private voicemails extended beyond celebrities and politicians. When the mother of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler said the hacking had given her false hope that her child was alive, the public was outraged. A long-standing system of voluntary self-regulation appears to have had little or no impact on unethical reporting practices, legal or illegal, and pressure has built for a tougher regime to make newspapers more responsible.

Meanwhile, the most powerful players in Fleet Street believe attack is the best form of defence. ‘The End of Three Centuries of Press Freedom’ cries a headline in the Telegraph. The Daily Mail has devoted pages to detailing what it calls a ‘conspiracy’ to muzzle newspapers and protect the powerful. Introducing laws will encourage lawyers and a compensation culture and make journalists wary of making disclosures in the public interest, says The Sun.

But moderate commentators argue that ‘the force or weakness of Leveson’s plans will be in how he curbs the ability of the press to trample on the innocent while reinforcing its power to unseat the corrupt.’ And journalists in the broadcast media are more sanguine: their output is already regulated by Ofcom or the BBC Trust.

Press gang

Would legally-binding regulation of the press on all publications be a cure far worse than the disease, as some argue? At first parliament may just require all newspapers to sign up to a code and tougher enforcement, but anti-censorship campaigners say it would have a ‘chilling’ effect on investigations and encourage dictators all over the world to curb the press.

‘Hysteria!’ cry many MPs and celebrities. Banks, broadcasters, and other industries who have lost trust face greater scrutiny and restrictions: so should Fleet Street.

You Decide

  1. Is press regulation important now that many people prefer internet or television news, or news blogs?
  2. Should celebrities, politicians and ordinary people all be treated the same by the media and under the laws or regulations that cover the media?

Activities

  1. Role play: set up a classroom inquiry into the conduct of the press, with a judge and witnesses representing celebrities, politicians and the newspapers.
  2. Research, using the links, the options for: self-regulation, independent regulation, statutory underpinned regulation or a more controlling regime.

Some People Say...

“To rinse the gutters of public life you need a gutter press.’ Boris Johnson”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m just an ordinary person, why bother with this?
Two reasons. You might have ambitions. People in showbusiness, politics and the arts have been blackmailed and humiliated by British tabloid papers. Also, if you become a victim of crime or are caught up by accident in some newsworthy event – as those killed or injured in the 7/7 bombings did – you become fair game for reporters.
That’s rough. But I’m worried about the idea of encouraging dictators.
So is the Government. In the US, the constitution enshrines free speech and in the UK there is a tradition of ‘raucous’ tabloids keeping tabs on the powerful. Undermining freedoms that underpin democracy would be serious: hence the importance of finding the right response to this report.

Word Watch

Number 10
Number 10 Downing Street in Central London is the residence of the UK Prime Minister.
Statutory
Set out in law and therefore compulsory and legally enforced.
Voluntary self-regulation
Currently, newspapers can belong to the Press Complaints Commission, which rules on complaints and sets out a code of ethics. But membership is not compulsory (Richard Desmond, who owns Express and Star newspapers, has opted out) and remedies and redress for press abuses are seen as weak.
Compensation culture
The Sun argues that lawyers would start offering their services to people mentioned in the press and an industry of compensation-chasing would grow out of statutory regulation.
Ofcom
The independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries. Its powers include granting licences to broadcasters and dealing with complaints about their content.
BBC Trust
The BBC is not regulated by Ofcom but by its own governing body, which has come under fire in recent months for failing to prevent the disastrous mishandling of two child sex abuse reports on the Newsnight programme.
Oligopolistic
Having the characteristics of an oligopoly, which is only a bit better than a monopoly. A free competitive market should have many different companies and a lot of choice for consumers. But a monopoly only has one provider and an oligopoly only has a few.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.