Thomas McEvilly and Lauren Wills debate the issue of press regulation, weighing up the need for freedom of expression, a transparent media, and ethical journalism
Today’s media get away with murder. We were all disgusted at the phone-hacking scandal which came to light in 2011, particularly in regards to Milly Dowler and the fact that News of the World employees had the audacity to hack a murder victim’s phone without considering the consequences for her family.
Other victims of phone-hacking included members of the Royal Family, families of deceased soldiers, and victims of the 7/7 London bombings. While these occurrences were a blatant, immoral violation of privacy, they highlighted a wider issue concerning the ethics of the media in today’s society and whether they should be held to account.
The press are said to have a constitutional role in democracies—that is, they hold people in power (especially in government) to account through discovering truth and publishing stories nationally. They encourage transparency and integrity which is undoubtedly well-needed in our government. Furthermore, there are arguments to suggest media publications encourage individuals to make well-informed decisions about politics and thus are a crucial agent in securing individual freedom of expression.
Because of this special status given to the media to promote freedom of speech in a democratic society, there is, in my opinion, too much space for them to abuse that power. Because our generation is so liberal, it’s easy to bypass the logic that if the media are holding people in power to account, they too need to be subject to scrutiny by an independent body separate from the government.
It’s a difficult debate, and I understand why free speech advocates may argue that any legislation governing the freedom of the press could be dangerous. David Cameron said this himself after the Leveson Inquiry when the recommendations were ultimately rejected.
Lord Justice Leveson, in his independent inquiry into the practices of the media, argued—after considering the phone-hacking scandal, police bribery and the press exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories—that there needed to be some kind of system to ensure the press didn’t abuse their power.
Because this was a few years ago and it’s not making the front page of newspapers anymore, most see the phone-hacking scandal as a distant memory or a few isolated incidents which won’t happen again. What many people don’t realise is that the system of regulation that has recently been introduced in the UK is in no way, shape or form independent and doesn’t actually hold the press to account or encourage journalistic integrity.
The same thing happened with the banking scandal in 2008. Because we’re recovering from the recession and moving forward, many pay little attention to the fact that hardly anything has been done to regulate banks and their practices with people’s money.
The new ‘regulation’ body in the UK was launched, as Michelle Gribbon comments, “with a whisper,” in September of this year.
With the hype and media attention of the phone-hacking scandal just a few years ago, you’d think the launch of this independent, rigorous, fair and transparent regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) would have gained more publicity than it did. Most newspapers have signed up to the new regulator; the Mirror Group, The Sun, The Times, The Telegraph and the Mail Group, however, it had no official launch and most newspapers refused to write about it, because it’s just not ‘newsworthy’ enough.
IPSO is a replacement for the previous Press Complaints Commission which served as an extremely embarrassing body to regulate the ethics of the media. The whole point of IPSO is that it’s meant to be separate from the Government so that the press are subject to proper regulation.
However, the watchdog we’ve all been waiting for is unlikely to stand up to the press, especially considering that it’s funded by the newspaper industry itself. Gribbon furthermore comments that, quite shamefully, one of their board members happens to be an individual who was a chief defender of The Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.
With no adequate means of regulation in the UK, we are in danger of further horrific abuse of the press. Freedom of speech advocates forget that newspapers’ primary goal is to make profit. With their goal being commercial rather than to publish the truth, they do not live up to their ‘special’ role within the constitution.
Newspapers really do just publish whatever is going to sell the most papers. I really don’t believe certain media corporations are concerned with journalistic integrity, truth, justice or any other virtues that such highly regarded institutions should possess. They make so much profit that they have money to set aside for libel claims, allowing them to take more risks.
I would argue for a truly independent regulator backed up by a loose statutory framework to govern the integrity of the press, because now, it’s like the Leveson Inquiry never happened. I think IPSO is an insult to victims of the media’s ruthless and relentless actions which they have not truly paid the price for, and I hope for the day when all responsible individuals and corporations are held to account for the phone-hacking scandal and its implications on victims’ families and loved ones.
The vital role the press plays to our democracy is undisputed, as the Lord Chief Justice has said; “in a country governed by the rule of law, the independence of the press is a constitutional necessity.” Not only does the press hold those in power to account, but, information it dispenses contributes to public discourse and debate, enabling the public to act on informed decisions. Therefore, any contemplation for regulating the press raises a number of threatening implications to our democratic society.
It goes without question that any regulation underpinned by statute is a gross infringement of this constitutional role; it couldn’t hold the government to account if those it was scrutinising had authority over it. This, however, is of less interest at this moment, but rather the idea of an independent regulatory body which had emerged in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, is what I have issue with. At present, the Press Complaints Commission is being abolished and replaced with IPSO, which in itself is totally flawed, but, if successful, has an equal bearing on democracy as state intervention.
Freedom of speech is one of our fundamental rights, which has enabled us to develop as a free country. First acknowledged by the Magna Carta and currently pronounced under Article 10 of the Humans Rights act 1998, it confers a right to enable us as individuals to hold opinions, receive and impart information without interference by public authority. This right extends to the press. It’s the enjoyment of freedom of expression by the press which allows it to fulfil its constitutional role, and regulation in any form is a fundamental breach of this right.
A free press should be encouraged because of the public benefit which comes from the free flow of information and by regulating the press then there is the danger that a chilling effect could emerge. Journalists would avoid newsworthy stories in fear that they would receive a negative reaction, or find themselves having to justify their actions in front of IPSO. A chilling effect of this kind is of great concern for the British democracy, because it causes journalists to write cautiously or remain silent, and how can this be any benefit to the public when they rely on the news in order to base intelligent choices in holding those in power accountable.
Yes, without any regulation the press is liable to publish false stories or exaggerate the truth, but this in itself shouldn’t be undermined, as it’s necessary for the development of society. False information forces us to challenge our own opinions, frequently, fully and fearlessly, resulting in a strengthened opinion, as otherwise we would be led to our own assumption of infallibility.
We have already seen the closure of one ‘red top’ newspaper. Strict regulations enforced by fines and the inclination of cautious journalism could see the closure of further newspapers, which only goes to narrow the sources from which public debate can be pooled.
I can see the argument that regulation is needed in order for the press to recognise their responsibility for ethical practices so as to discourage journalism which has a total disregard for privacy, but people need to gain perspective. The phone hacking undertaken by the News of the World was to sell stories relating to celebrity culture; there’s a difference between publication of a celebrity’s affairs and newsworthy material in the public interest. In order to stifle unethical journalism found in the small minority of newspapers, the majority of effective journalism will be inhibited by regulation as a whole.
As the press serves us, we shouldn’t underestimate the power in our freedom to choose to read the stories offered. If journalism is unethical or blatantly unfounded then it is unlikely that people will chose to read it or even believe it, demand in itself would be a proportionate regulator. I do recognise that this may not be adequate redress for certain injustices suffered by individuals as a result of a false story, however there are existing legal frameworks in place which directly deal with these circumstances, namely the law of libel and breach of confidence and it is unnecessary that a further hurdle should be placed in the way of a free press.
As soon as the press becomes regulated, we passively allow a detrition of the right to freedom of expression, and this would only go on to allow violation of further fundamental rights needed for the existence of our democracy.