Jan 17 2014

The world’s hacks now think that UK press is less free – they may be right

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne fact that can unite all sides in the post-Leveson press regulation debate is that the world now thinks that British journalists are less free and less likely to be free in the future.

This perception may be caused by false representations of the issues by the UK media or simple ignorance of the facts. But there is no doubt that journalists in both ‘liberal democratic’ and more restricted societies all believe that the Brits have sold the pass on press freedom.

How do I know this? They tell me. Lots of them. From lots of very different places.

Just this week Polis hosted a group of journalists from newsrooms and regulation bodies in countries as diverse as Norway, Uruguay, America and Pakistan. UK experts in favour of strict enforcement of the Leveson proposals such as Martin Moore from Media Standards Trust (And Hacked Off), Steven Barnett and Natalie Fenton came to brief them alongside critics such as Tim Luckhurst (Kent Uni) and George Brock (City Uni – ex Times) and myself. Regardless of the arguments we have in the UK about this – or perhaps because of them – the delegation seemed confused on the details. Luckily there were lots of experts on hand with lots of facts, albeit with differing interpretations of those facts.

Damage Done

But what was clear from what the international delegation said was that the damage to Britain’s reputation as a beacon of free expression has already been done. They are convinced that Leveson (plus events such as the Government attacks on the Guardian over Snowden) have made British news media a case for serious concern.

I’ve had a lot of this from my travels over the last couple of years. Puzzled Yanks can’t understand why on earth any journalist would accept any kind of government interference, however indirect and remote. ¬†Worried Africans in places like Uganda and Kenya tell me how their legislators delight in introducing new ‘regulations’ on journalists citing the ‘ethical’ example of Lord Leveson and HMG. Even our fellow Europeans in places like Norway say that their MPs are now happily attacking the press with punitive economic measures to keep them in line.

Foreign Fears

I think this does make a point regarding the debate over the Royal Charter. We should adopt the kind of regulation we want in this country. But however ill-informed, these foreign fears do tell us something. Unless you have a very clear, very simple and very strong defence of press freedom then there is always going to be a potential threat.

I accept that under the Royal Charter proposal the threat of political interference is indirect, minimal and in the future. But that alone is enough to have a potential chilling effect and who knows what the future holds? In that sense, our international colleagues are right – even if they don’t understand all the nuances of the process. If the protection of press freedom has become this ambiguous, then it’s not good enough.

Of course, this process is not nearly done. IPSO is stirring into life and struggling to convince. The Royal Charter still lurks in the background with an election pending. Other policy debates on plurality, ownership and the BBC could have bigger impacts on UK journalism than press regulation. The most important audience is the British public and the priority must be ensuring they get the most free and effective news media possible. But it is also worth listening to the wider world.  They are fully aware of the faults of our raucous, over-competitive, partisan press. But they are also scratching their heads wondering why we are throwing out the freedom baby with the ethical bathwater.

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 09.56.01[If you are a non-UK journalist - or if you simply want more good information on this topic, then go to the LSE's Media Policy Project blog for a whole series of articles on Leveson and the Royal Charter including policy dossiers, international analysis and opinion pieces]



This entry was posted in Director's Commentary, Journalism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The world’s hacks now think that UK press is less free – they may be right

  1. IAS2014 says:

    Is it not reasonable to believe that if the press should be regulated – with a view to enabling restrictions to poor practices but enhancing good ethical practices – how is it that MPs and the political elite enjoy such freedoms when MPs still have No Legal or Statutory Obligation to Represent constituents, and, many times, it could be said that they don’t do what is desperately needed or expected by constituents. Additionally, it could be questioned “why isn’t the work that MPs do tested for its Quality or Achievement of ‘representations’ by Parliament or a independent source?”

    Thus, one can only conclude that a Leveson Inquiry Part II is required in order to challenge a public funded sector (which should have been Part I of the Leveson Inquiry to reform Parliament), on the basis that a private organisation, such as the press, has been challenged by those throwing stones who live in glass houses.

  2. toffer99 says:

    How could anyone think that newspapers controlled by Murdoch or Rothermere would be “free”.

  3. Steve Barnett says:

    Charlie – you’re right about the perceptions being propagated abroad, although much of that is being fuelled by the deliberately distorted and one-sided arguments in our own newspapers.

    While I agree with much of what you write, it is simply not correct to say of the Charter that “the threat of political interference is indirect, minimal and in the future”.

    Because of the way the system has been designed, the threat is non-existent. Those courts costs and damages which represent the key incentives/penalties are only triggered if a self-regulator VOLUNTARILY comes forward to be recognised. If any government or Parliament tried to change the charter, any recognised self-regulator can and will simply walk away. At that point, all the costs/damages provisions fall away and the Charter becomes an empty and meaningless shell – whatever changes are made to it by government, and however malevolent the intent.

    So I do not see how the Charter poses even the tiniest chink of distant risk. I accept that this is a difficult argument to convey when faced with the tsunami of propaganda around ending 300 years of press freedom. And I also accept that there are competing opinions about using Charters at all or the principle of “underpinning” statute. Of course we need to debate those issues.

    But I hope you will accept that, in terms of the pure mechanics and operation of this system, there is no risk whatsoever. And I do think it is incumbent on those who state otherwise to show on what factual basis they reach that conclusion. If I thought for one second that we were increasing the chances of political intervention in the press, I would abandon my own support immediately.

    How to convey all this to an international audience, some from countries where the state needs no excuse to suppress free speech and where opinion leaders still regard The Times as objective and truthful, is a very different and difficult question.

    Thanks for organising and inviting me to a very stimulating session, it was extremely interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>