UK media: to regulate or not to regulate

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 31/10/2013
All political parties in the UK are of the view that the press has failed to self regulate. The press, in turn, accuse the British politicians of wanting to curb press freedom through the new regulatory mechanism,

 In a simple and short ceremony at the Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, the Queen of England gave her seal of approval to the controversial press regulation reform enshrined in a royal charter .The British media condemned the move and described it as ‘unconstitutional’ . The last time the UK press came under state regulation was in 1695.

The charter creates  a watchdog to oversee a new press regulator. Media organisations are  free to sign up or stay outside the new system of regulation.

Earlier in the day at the London High Court there was a nerve-wracking stand-off between the newspaper industry and Westminster politicians over the issue of press regulation. Some British newspapers had appealed for an injunction against it. However, the High Court rejected the petition and the newspapers described this as “unfair and unfortunate ’. According to reports, publishers of the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and the Daily Telegraph have decided to re-appeal in the coming days.

The main objection the industry has is the principle of it - that politicians from Westminister have sat together with a Privy Council and secretly, without any transparency and without involving players from the media; have stitched up the press regulation. 

It also has severe penalties on arbitration. The press wants to have its own new independent regulatory body with players they choose. It will also include former editors on the board that will look into complaints. It  will regulate itself and will not be regulated by politicians.

“Foxes have taken charge of the chicken coup” said the editor of the Spectator in a television interview referring to the politicians trying to regulate the media. In the digital age we need a media that can be protected, he added, saying the regulation by the government may come to nought in the end if the press do not sign up. The press in the UK is adamant not to accept the Royal Charter. They want to set up their own independent regulatory body which will be independent of the one being suggested by the politicians. The press regulation is also not likely to kick in before the 2015 elections.

Bob Satchwell, from the Society of Editors, told the BBC :“This court room is just a side show – what is real is that there will be a new tough regulator by next year and it is being set up by the industry itself - that will ensure that politicians will not be able to control the press”.  “We are aware that some of the press is not pretty but it is free! We have laws in this country and we don’t need laws dictated by politicians” Editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop commented.

The Royal Charter is backed by all three political parties in the UK - the ruling Tories and Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour. They are of the view that the press has failed to self regulate in the past and hence must come under the purview of an ‘independent’ regulator. The press, in turn, accuse the British politicians of wanting to curb press freedom through the new regulatory mechanism.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller maintained that the government was all for ‘freedom of the press’ and stated that in the end ‘there would have to be a system that is workable for the press.’

Meanwhile members of Hacked Off like British actors Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, who were victims of phone hacking, and had lobbied with many others for the regulation, welcomed the court ruling. “The position adopted by the newspaper industry shows the scale of denial of the industry- victims of press abuse for whom we speak are totally for this change ... it is a shocking affront to democracy that they will not agree,” one Hacked Off member said.

The dilemma of the general public is one expressed by a Labour MP, Sir Gerald Kaufman, during a debate in the House of Commons: “I prefer a pernicious and irresponsible press to a state repressed press! But the excesses by the press are unacceptable and should not have happened.”

Exactly eleven months after Justice Leveson submitted his report on the phone hacking scandal that had taken place four years ago in the Murdoch owned, News of the World (NOTW) tabloid, the British Parliament has been pushing for a new press regulation mechanism. The hacking scandal had, showed the Press Complaints Committee in poor light and with it the demand for ending the regime of self regulation had got shriller.

The Leveson inquiry that unfolded over months witnessed unprecedented questioning of proprietors Rupert  and James Murdoch, the former Editors, other journalists down the newsroom chain, victims’ families, bureaucrats, police officials and top politicians, including the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

On the same day the Queen put her seal of approval on the new regulatory mechanism, the much awaited prosecution against Rebekah Brooks, former chief of the Murdoch owned News International and Andy Coulson, who succeeded her and who later became a spin doctor for Prime Minister, David Cameron began at the Old Bailey.

The present predicament of the UK press is a direct fallout of phone hacking of a school girl, Milly Dowler by the News of the World (NOTW). Dowler was murdered in 2002 and her parents had given a heart - rending account of their tragedy to Justice Leveson. The unearthing of the phone hacking resulted in widespread revulsion among ordinary citizens against the ‘gutter press’ of Britain.

The rest is history.                                                                       

All eight defendants, including Brooks and Coulson, seated next to one another in the courtroom, denied any involvement in phone hacking.

The three main charges against Rebekah Brooks are:

  • Conspiracy to intercept phone calls
  • Attempts to corrupt public officials through bribery in exchange for secret information
  • Conspiracy to subvert the course of justice

The jury was informed that Rebekah Brooks had signed upto 40,000 GBP for payments to one Ministry of Defence (MOD) official for speaking to NOTW. The QC was very candid: “Where there is payment- there is a crime”.

The trial is already being projected as one that could last up to six months.

Besides Brooks and Coulson, there are six other defendants - including Brooks’ husband, Charlie Brooks, a racehorse trainer. The jury compromises of 12 jury members of whom nine are women and three are men. The jury was warned by the judge that they were to ignore all external noise on the case to avoid prejudice and focus only on the evidence being presented in the court. “It is as if British justice itself is on trial” Judge Saunders told the jurors.

The run up to this court battle and the entire debate over regulation has been a contentious one. Sir Brian Leveson, who inquired into the ‘Culture, Ethics and Practices of the Press’ and gave his report almost a year back, had to answer questions by a Parliamentary Joint Select committee in mid October this year. The select committee headed by John Whittingdale, Chair of Culture, Media and Sports Committee along with MPs across all political parties asked Justice Leveson whether he thought the Royal Charter drafted and set to be introduced truly resembled his report or whether it had been distorted.

Justice Leveson replied: “ I have said everything I had to in the report I have submitted- the ball is now in your court and it is your problem now, not mine. It has to be done with consultation of press and public who are affected. I made my recommendations and I stand by them- the independent regulator must be truly independent – it has to work for the press and the public”.

The select committee pointed out that the Leveson inquiry had cost the exchequer 5 million GBP and it is said that the Royal Charter and Leveson’s recommendations differ, specially on issues of arbitration. Earlier the Royal Charter had come in for a heated discussion in the House of Commons and it had then been introduced in the library for members to scrutinise.

The opposition Labour Party had alleged that the government was using dilly dallying policies on adopting the press regulation bill. “Can you assure us that there will be no further effort to kick this into the long grass?” asked Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP. Harriet Herman, Shadow Secretary, Labour, had blamed the government of unprecedented delay on the matter when the charter had been approved in the House of Commons and House of Lords on March 18 this year.

The British media has been in the eye of the storm over the last one year over different issues- to use the phrase-from the ridiculous to the sublime. Controversies regarding the type of journalism varied from the ‘gutter press’ type phone-hacking revelations, to the breach of the Guardian newsroom, when in an unprecedented  move the British Home office officials marched into the Editor’s room and asked him to destroy the hard-disk of US whistleblower, Edward Snowden. Or face consequences.

Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun defending the stand of the newspapers opposing the Royal Charter said in a television programme: “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig”. He was referring to the press regulation.

Courtrooms in London are once again the venue for a media circus in Britain. This time though it is incestuous. It is entirely on issues concerning the media.

Related link: When Downing Street came to the Leveson Inquiry

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