The Government and British Newspapers: Tabloid 'Excesses' Raise the Specter of Government Regulation

By O'Connor, Robert | Editor & Publisher, February 9, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Government and British Newspapers: Tabloid 'Excesses' Raise the Specter of Government Regulation


O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher


The government and British newspapers

Widespread impatience in Britain with the excesses of the tabloid press has raised the specter of government regulation of newspapers.

On Jan. 1, 1991, Britain's newspaper publishers launched the Press Complaints Commission, giving it a mandate to act against the distortions and invasions of privacy that are characteristics of the lower end of Fleet Street.

The new commission, which has replaced the 27-year-old Press Council, is largely regarded as an attempt by the owners to head off the creation of a body with legal powers over the press. The Press Council is seen as having failed to retrain the tabloid editors.

The emergence of the Press Complaints Commission follows the recommendations last year of the Calcutt Committee. The committee, headed by David Calcutt, a prominent lawyer, urged that there be three new criminal offenses to protect privacy. It also recommended that a Code of Practice be created. The failure of a press complaints commission, the Calcutt Committee said, should be followed by the establishment of a statutory tribunal, backed by public money and equipped with enforcement powers.

The threat of press legislation is not a new one. It dates at least as far back as a postwar Royal Commission on the Press.

The Calcutt Commission cited a high "level of public and parliamentary concern about the apparent failure of non-statutory regulation by the Press."

The growth of competition during the past two decades, the committee said, "may have led some tabloid editors to feel |let off the leash,' in pursuit of competitive advantage."

The tone of the Calcutt report caused alarm among "quality" national newspapers and the regional press, which both suffer from a tendency of the public to lump them together with the tabloids. The Newspaper Society, which represents regional publishers, warned that the Calcutt report represented a threat to press freedom. It accepted the idea of a complaints commission only "reluctantly and conditionally."

In October, the Association of British Editors released details of a survey of more than 700 newspaper and broadcast editors that revealed only 7.5% support the creation of a press complaints body under the Calcutt guidelines.

"We are dancing too much to the government's tune on this," said Nicholas Herbert, editorial director of Westminster Press, which operates a chain of regional newspapers in Britain. "There's a great paradox. The politicians are saying that these newspapers, which sell so many copies, are gross offense and must be put in order, when they are clearly the papers which command the greatest public support."

Herbert does not fear that the creation of the complaints comission will lead to immediate legislation, but, in the "medium to long term," he said, "it's brought the possibility of statutory control quite a bit closer. Because we've agreed to do it their way, it makes it very easy for them to say in the future, |Well, this is the system you designed. We just need a little more strength and we'll give it statutory powers. Of course, you can't really object, can you?'"

Herbert, who worked for six years as a reporter in Washington for Reuters and the London Times, said such moves in the United States "would worry" Americans.

"Americans believe in freedom of information," he said "and, on the whole, the British establishment doesn't. If you work as a reporter in the United States and you say you're a reporter, people regard that as an important job. In this country, they regard it as a reason for kicking you out."

David Flint, chairman of the Australian Press Council, criticized the Calcutt report for rejecting the idea that a press complaints commission should have a role in defending the freedom of the press.

"Throughout the centuries," Flint said, "the freedoms that the British people have enjoyed have made her a beacon, a land where, at times almost totally surrounded by tyranny, freedom of speech and a free press have flourished. …

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