Against State Regulation of the Press

New Statesman (1996), November 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Against State Regulation of the Press


The British press has long been allowed to regulate itself but in recent years it has appeared entirely incapable of doing so. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) proved impotent as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded and as individuals such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies were casually traduced. Established to act as a watchdog, it has too often operated as a gentleman's club, run by the media, for the media.

In view of this, a significant body of opinion now argues that any new regulatory regime must be enshrined in statute. If the Leveson report, which was published soon after we went to press, recommends reform along these lines, it will likely enjoy the support of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and at least 70 Conservative MPs: a political coalition large enough to command a majority in the House of Commons. But the introduction of state regulation, however minimal, would be neither just nor necessary. By forcing newspapers to submit to the new regime, parliament would, in effect, reintroduce state licensing, a practice abolished in Britain in 1695 and incompatible with the principle of a free press. This, as John Wilkes declared in The North Briton in 1762, is "the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country". In those instances where abuse does occur, what is required is not state regulation but better enforcement of the existing law. Phone-hacking and bribery, for instance, are already illegal.

Journalists were once defined as those employed by a private or public media corporation, but in the age of the smart-phone and the blog anyone can self-publish. Would "citizen journalists" be required to submit to the new state-backed regulator? If so, the system would prove unwieldy. If not, the print media, already in existential danger, would be further disadvantaged.

The spectacle of state regulation in Britain would also deal a hard blow to those fighting for press freedom in emerging democracies and dictatorships around the world. Fred M'membe, the editor of the Zambia Post, who has routinely been imprisoned on false charges of defamation, has warned that statutory controls in Britain would "spread through Africa like a firestorm". …

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