A recent report on press freedoms in the United Kingdom has criticised the Royal Charter on press regulation introduced in response to the British phone hacking scandal, and legislation associated with it, because of the involvement of politicians in the regulatory process.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) published the report, which was the result of meetings in January between various international editors and media executives representing WAN-IFRA, and numerous parties in the UK, including members of parliament, editors, academics, lawyers and media executives.
The report, written by WAN-IFRA press freedom director Andrew Heslop and titled Press Freedom in the United Kingdom, aimed to address the impact that UK media regulation has on press freedoms both domestically and internationally, in the wake of the approval of the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press.
It also addressed The Guardian’s coverage of NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations and the pressure placed on the paper by the British government “to cease reporting, destroy ‘evidence’, and shut down debate on the critical issues raised by the newspaper’s reporting”.
Mr Heslop told The Newspaper Works that the NSA revelations and other high-profile news breaks like the MPs expenses stories have pitted the press against the establishment, and that we are yet to see the full ramifications of that.
“How many stories are not being covered? How many sources will not come forward? Again it comes back to whether we are more comfortable with the government setting the agenda, or whether we allow a free media to do so on our behalf?” he said.
“Denying that there is a public interest element to stories such as the NSA leaks or the expenses scandal shows that we cannot put that faith in government, even in a country like the UK.”
Findings in the report recommend that any regulatory system governing the press should have the support of the industry and that reform discussions be transparent and open to public consultation. It also states that self-regulation remains “the ideal model for press regulation” and guarantees the least restrictions to press freedoms.
However, it said the recent Royal Charter and associated legislation represented a shift in the current system and an unnecessary level of statutory regulation – “a departure from the principle of zero involvement of politicians in press regulation”.
Mr Heslop said that governments should take their own domestic situation on its merits when considering regulatory models, rather than viewing regulation in a vacuum.
“The UK situation under the Royal Charter proposal is a move from ‘unfettered’ self-regulation (deemed to have failed in its current guise) towards an untried version of co-regulation,” he said.
“While on the face of it the mechanics are workable, it nevertheless represents a fundamental shift in approach for the UK, introducing an additional layer of oversight to a system formerly entirely operated by the press.
“Any regulation should meet a specific three-part test in order to be compatible with the right to freedom of expression, since regulatory measures for the media could interfere with press freedom. They should be: prescribed by law / in pursuit of a legitimate aim / necessary in a democratic society.”
Addressing the current state of press freedom in the UK, WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyrègne said: “The lack of any real guarantees enshrining press freedom continues to expose journalism in the United Kingdom to great uncertainty, as there is nothing benign in a system that invites even the possibility of tighter restrictions on freedom of expression.”
“If the UK government feels it is acceptable, in the name of national security, to dictate what is in the public interest, and given the UK’s continued influence over developing nations where media are essential for the spread of democratic values, the future of a free, independent press that can hold power to account is under threat worldwide.”
WAN-IFRA also stated that any industry concern regarding political interference in the media is substantiated by recent actions against The Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers and that the lack of constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression makes newspapers vulnerable to further attack “depending of the prevailing political culture”.
The report advised foreign governments to avoid transposing the British model of press regulation in their own countries and that specific national contexts should be considered when designing regulatory policy that affects the free press, as Mr Heslop noted. On this issue, it also stated, “there is growing evidence, reported by the WAN-IFRA membership, that the British approach…is being used by repressive regimes to excuse their own practices towards the press.”
Mr Heslop also noted attempts to impose regulation on the British press are not simply the product of a post-Leveson, post-phone hacking scandal political perspective, and that there have been a number of “last chance saloon moments” over the last few decades in terms of events where the press have been considered to have crossed the line.
“The idea that there has been a general conservative shift in society in recent years, perhaps in relation to the economic downturn, maybe as a result of a decade or so of terrorism and national security scares working their way into the common psyche (teaching people to be cautious, suspicious, less open perhaps), has brought with it a hardening of attitudes towards immigration, social welfare, and a growing sense of individualism – not just in the UK but Europe-wide, and beyond,” he said.
“This has all arguably resulted in less tolerance for being offended – by the press, by the arts, by culture in general. The depth and scope of the hacking scandal was a profound shock, and the Leveson Report attempted to deal with the overall political sentiment – based on the public temperature at the time – that instead ‘something ought to be done’.”
To see the full Press Freedom in the United Kingdom report, click here.
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