Feature

United Kingdom: Does the press need a royal muzzle?

“More than three centuries of press freedom” is suddenly at risk with the creation of a government-backed press watchdog.

“More than three centuries of press freedom” is suddenly at risk, said The Sunin an editorial. Behind closed doors at Buckingham Palace last week, the “medieval institution known as the Privy Council” signed away our rights by creating a new, government-backed press watchdog through a royal charter. Newspapers, which had no input on the charter, are supposed to submit to the new body’s judgments on their reporting or face steep fines. “The process has more in common with tyranny than a nation that founded parliamentary government.”

The takeover came about because of the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, said Bill Martin in the Western Morning News. The government ordered an inquiry in 2011 after it was discovered—ironically, through brilliant reporting by The Guardian—that reporters at the now-defunct News of the World and other newspapers were hacking into the voice mail of crime victims, celebrities such as Hugh Grant, and even royalty, and using the information thus gleaned in salacious stories. The inquiry, by Lord Justice Leveson, found that “politicians and the press had become too close,” and that the tabloids were behaving outrageously. The newspaper industry accepts the need for some kind of regulatory system, but it “has come up with its own plan and pretty much to a man is insisting it will not sign up to the government’s.” A royal charter is a blunt instrument that hits respectable regional papers like this one just as hard as lurid, irresponsible tabloids, and could “result in state control of the press.”

In any other industry, this proposal would be “considered an amateurish absurdity,” said Peter Preston inThe Observer. The charter practically requires that the people pronouncing on the press have no background in publishing or journalism. We can see the help-wanted ad now: “Great new press standards organization seeks dynamic leader. No experience necessary.” Even Lord Leveson didn’t recommend a government agency like this one, said The Sunday Telegraph; he proposed an independent group. Only thanks to “a hidden web of influence” encompassing politicians from Left and Right did a cross-party consensus emerge in favor of regulation by statute.

What’s the big deal? asked Chris Huhne inThe Guardian. All the charter does is set up a body to certify the true independence of whatever self-regulator the newspapers devise. The current Press Complaints Commission is entirely run and funded by the big newspaper groups, so it’s no surprise that it has “turned a blind eye to evil practices.” Let’s not forget that the press has been scathingly critical of other self-regulation systems, such as in banking and securities trading. It is “ludicrously implausible” for it to contend that self-regulation will work for the press.

Yet it has worked for centuries, said the Daily Mirror. The nation’s newspapers refuse to allow the state to dictate our business to us. In an era when The Guardian is threatened with prosecution for revealing NSA spying, “press freedom is best served by the politicians’ royal charter rotting on its vellum.”

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