Press regulations: freedom of the press; protection for victims

March 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

A decision on what form the new press regulation will take has been reached between the country’s three major political parties.

Announced earlier this week, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour agreed that an independent body will be set up by royal charter, and will have the powers to impose fines of up to £1million. The body will have regulation over newspapers, magazines and news-related websites, although it will not extend to opinion and commentary blogs.

The decision by party leaders came about following Lord Justice Leveson’s year -long inquiry into press ethics after the phone-hacking scandal came to public attention in 2011.

It was a scandal that revealed journalists, namely from the now dissolved Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, had hacked into the phones of victims of crimes, such as the parents of murdered school-girl Milly Dowler and celebrities including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Prime Minister David Cameron said that what happened to press intrusion victims was “utterly despicable” and that it was necessary to put in place regulations “to ensure such appalling acts can never happen again”.

Many have been quick to praise the new regulations – which will first have to be approved by the Queen’s Privy Council in May before coming into place – including the press reform campaign group, Hacked Off. Director of the group, Brian Cathcart said that the system will “protect the freedom of the press and, at the same time, protect the public from the kinds of abuses that made the Leveson inquiry necessary”.

However, Kirsty Hughes, chief executive for free speech campaign group Index on Censorship has said that the decision was a “sad day for press freedom in the UK”, adding that having MPs voting on the press “crosses the line on freedom of expression”.

It is these two conflicting ideas – ensuring press freedom, while protecting victims by creating a regulatory body that has the power to impose real punishment to those who’ve overstepped the mark – that the political parties have tried to balance with their decision.

While there is no question that the rights of victims should be protected and that the immoral behaviours that led to the phone-hacking scandal should not be allowed to be repeated, it is also important that press maintain their freedom and their distance from government intervention.

As Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger pointed out nearly two years ago, the reason the phone-hacking story was unveiled was “down to a free press”. He argues that press freedom is important and should be “jealously preserved and guarded” because it is part of something bigger: the right to freedom of expression.

Regardless of whether Cameron and co have gotten the balance right – that is something only time will tell – the real question is: will the new regulatory body be effective? Or will it fail as spectacularly as the Press Complaints Commission did?

Having the power to impose huge fines upon publications, which break the rules is a step in the right direction. But what about stepping up the enforcement of laws that are already in place and have already been broken? The ones that criminalise illegal phone hacking and bribery of officials. If the laws against such crimes are not heavily enforced, then regardless of how successful the new regulatory body is, we will continue to have repeats of the phone-hacking scandal.

Originally published on MouthLondon.

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