After phone hacking, British press regulation in spotlight

September 29, 2011

It was a slightly jarring sight: the actor Hugh Grant at a political conference explaining “what I’d like for Christmas.”

After saying that British tabloids had “effectively castrated our Parliament for a long time,” Grant said he wanted people to stop arguing that regulating British newspapers could gravely damage press freedoms.

The allegations that the News of the World tabloid illegally intercepted voicemail messages, including those of celebrities such as Grant and of a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl, have sparked a debate here about how to stamp out the culture that allowed phone hacking without infringing on the kind of dogged journalism that uncovered the scandal.

As a figurehead for a group called Hacked Off, Grant is making the rounds on the political conference party circuit and calling for tighter restrictions to rein in Fleet Street’s rogue behavior. And a majority of the public appears to agree with him, at least in principle.

In a July poll by YouGov, 59 percent of people surveyed said Parliament should set up a formal authority to regulate the press; only 27 percent said the press should continue to regulate itself.

Although there is a widespread feeling here that hacking into phones was so unthinkably reprehensible that something will inevitably change, there is also a deep fear in media circles of draconian regulation that could seriously jeopardize press freedoms so valued in a healthy democracy.

“I’m really worried about the danger of statutory regulation of the press,” said Ray Snoddy, a prominent media commentator, adding that Britain’s notoriously tough libel laws have a chilling effect on free speech.

He said the campaign for legislation was gaining traction through the “several actors and comedians with unorthodox private lives who are suddenly putting themselves forward.”

Editors are also stepping forward.

Speaking alongside several newspaper editors last week at a Thomson Reuters event called “Press We Deserve,” Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, said he was hopeful that Britain’s ferociously competitive newspapers could agree on a beefed up self-regulatory body.

“We understand that we have to stand together, we have to clean our house, or else we face statutory regulation which none of us wants,” Barber said, adding that the industry’s sheriff, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), no longer inspires confidence.

The PCC is a good mediator and adjudicator, many editors say, but not a good regulator, in part because it has few resources and no investigative powers.

After the prime minister accused the PCC in July of being “absent,” “ineffective” and “lacking in rigor,” the watchdog said that it was undergoing its own review and that the outcome of the phone-hacking scandal should be a more independent PCC. Nearly half of its committee members are serving editors.

The PCC sprang out of a time of particular recklessness in the British press.

Elton John, for instance, sued the Sun tabloid 17 times in the late 1980s over false stories that ran under headlines including “Elton in Vice Boys Scandal” and “You’re a Liar, Elton.” (The Sun’s editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, later said: “When I published those stories, they were not lies. . . . They were great stories that later turned out to be untrue.”)

 Faced with calls for statutory regulation, newspapers in 1991 formed the PCC, a voluntary system of self-policing.

PCC members sign up to a voluntary code of conduct (for example, the press cannot use hidden cameras; the press cannot hack into cellphones or e-mails), but the watchdog has no powers to enforce the code, investigate breaches or impose fines. Instead, it works with aggrieved parties by demanding that newspapers print apologies and corrections.

Twenty years later, Harold Evans, the energetic doyen of British journalism, said he has “not much hope at all” that the serious papers and the tabloids, also called red tops, will join forces to hammer out a new self-regulatory solution that would appease the public and politicians.

But there is a sense of urgency here for British newspapers to sort something out before the authorities do, Evans said. In addition to celebrities campaigning for regulation with sharper teeth, the Leveson Inquiry, set up on the back of the phone-hacking scandal, will start summoning witnesses under oath in October as it investigates, among other things, how to regulate the press.

The debate around how much extra regulation should be placed on the print press can seem like an anathema to Americans. In the United States, newspaper reporters have no regulatory body but must work within defamation and privacy laws.

“I’m horrified by what I’m hearing. . . . We’re heading towards truth commissions if we’re going to go down this road,” said Carl Bernstein after a discussion on regulatory possibilities at a Guardian-sponsored event called “After Hacking: How Can the Press Restore Trust?” in London on Thursday night.

The former Washington Post reporter, who with Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate scandal, said: “Once you start in this business of saying that the press has to adhere to certain standards relating to truth, relating to accuracy, I think you’re in terrible trouble. . . . The press needs to be regulated the same way every other person’s speech is — one hopes not regulated, except perhaps for yelling fire in a crowded theater.”

Geoffrey Robertson, a leading media lawyer, has called for a new privacy law that can be overruled in special cases in which there is a strong public interest defense. Others argue that the law is enough of a policing tool and that 16 journalists who have been arrested over phone hacking may serve time in jail.

Greg Dyke, the former director general of the BBC, is one of the few voices within the media industry calling for something akin to Ofcom, the broadcast media regulator, which has strict rules about political impartiality and can revoke licenses and impose hefty fines.

In an interview, Dyke said, “In broadcasting, we have always had proper regulation backed up by statute, and it hasn’t made the broadcasters any less brave.”

The opposition Labor party sparked a backlash on Twitter this week when it appeared to suggest that newspapers introduce a system whereby journalists are licensed and can have their licenses revoked for malpractice.

Louise Mensch, a member of Parliament from the ruling Conservative party, posted on Twitter: “Has Ivan Lewis MP gone insane? A state registry for journalists? Baby/bathwater.”

CNN host Piers Morgan joked that the Labor party could go further. “Miscreant British journalists need to be subjected to public floggings and summary hangings,” he tweeted.

Media analysts say that any new system will have to be sensible in an era of new media, financially viable, and work with Britain’s libel and privacy laws, which are under review.

In an interview, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said: “It’s going to require superhuman vision and coordination by someone to craft something out of this that could be hopeful.”

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