Why statutory regulation of the press would be fatal for democracy

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The Leveson Inquiry recommendations for a new regulatory regime are published today (Thursday) amid editors’ fears that new legislation for press regulation could have potentially devastating consequences for public interest journalism and democracy.

Four editors, whose titles cover the constituencies of Prime Minister Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg, Opposition Leader Miliband and Culture Secretary Maria Miller, have called for a new system of tough self-regulation of the press.

Simon O’Neill, group editor of the Oxford Mail and Oxford Times which cover the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency, said: “A free press is essential to a truly democratic society.

“Weaken the former and you weaken the latter. It really is as simple as that. There are no half measures and when it comes to regulation of a free press, you cannot have ‘a little bit of legislation’. It’s all or nothing.

“Am I paranoid? You bet I am. There are people in power out there – politicians and public servants included – who utter fine words about democracy and accountability, and then do all they can to cover up their corruption and hypocrisy. They have scores to settle.

“The press does have a lot to answer for and, if truth be told, we have brought much of this upon ourselves. If Leveson flushes out the immoral, illegal and downright despicable practices of a small section of our industry, he will have done journalism and society as a whole a great service.”

But Mr O’Neill warned: “If he advocates a regulatory body backed by legislation and that is implemented by this Government, he and every politician who supports him will go down in history as the people who made future curbs on press freedom possible. It is society as a whole – as well as the honest, decent and responsible press who are vital to a functioning democracy – that will suffer.”

Jeremy Clifford, editor in chief of the Johnston Press-owned The Star and Sheffield Telegraph which cover Mr Clegg’s Sheffield, Hallam constituency, added: “We have to review the issue of press regulation outside of the hysteria and disgraceful revelations – and do so in a context of rational thought.

“We cannot allow decisions to be made by politicians who are fast and loose with their own words, such as Nick Clegg who describes the press on the one hand as ‘desperate animals around a disappearing waterhole’ and on the other, ‘The underlying strength of your newspapers seems to be growing rather than diminishing ... you have rates of trust in what you produce which is the envy of many other parts of the media’.”

Mr Clifford went on: “The point is that the likes of Mr Clegg draw a distinction between some of the national newspapers and the local media. But statutory legislation will not do so. Nor will it be able to constrain or regulate publishers outside of newspapers – by which I mean the internet and social media.

“So why has self-regulation failed? It has failed because the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has no muscle or teeth. We in the local press regard a ruling against us by the PCC as a badge of shame, to be avoided at all costs.

“If that is not now thought to be sufficient to ensure regulation is to be effective across the entire newspaper industry, listen to Lord Black’s proposals. Preserve self-regulation, but give the body teeth, the power to fine, bind publishers into a contractual relationship of self governance, with a body that has enforceable powers to investigate breakdowns in ethical standards and to impose financial sanctions.”

Graeme Huston, editor in chief of South Yorkshire Newspapers, other Johnston Press titles, which covers Mr Miliband’s Doncaster North constituency, added: “The breadth and weight of the existing legislation is complemented by the fact that we in the regional press respect and adhere to the PCC code of conduct. And, of course, journalists, like everyone else, must obey the law.

“In the face of suggestions of further regulation it should be noted that it is already a difficult and skilled job, in the framework of the controls described above, to hold those in public office to account.”

He went on to give a local example. “In Doncaster, journalists on the weekly Doncaster Free Press carried out an investigation into a child-care services scandal. This involved the deaths of several children and led to the local authority being named and shamed in parliament and taken over by Government.

“We met sometimes ferocious resistance on many levels, but we were right, and we eventually delivered to our readers a story about individual tragedies that added up to a matter of national significance.”

Mr Huston asked: “The question is would new statutory regulations on the press, brought about in response to appalling behaviour elsewhere in the industry, make that kind of story more or less likely to come to light? Political control could discourage or even snuff out investigative journalism which is wholly in the public interest.”

Susan Windram, editor of TheSouthern, said: “While the control of broadcasing in Scotland is with Westminster, print media regulation falls under the control of the Scottish Parliament.

“First Minister Alex Salmond has already said he is against state regulation but would like to see an enhanced press council, based on the system operating in Ireland.

“The majority of journalists would accept that while the vast majority comply with the PCC, the current self-regulatory model is not working. However, the regional press plays a vital role within its communities, and our readers trust us and look to us not only to report on the great things happening in our region, but also to challenge those things that are wrong or where standards fall below what is expected. 
One of the most notable examples of investigative journalism by this paper was the case of Miss X.

“Were the Government to introduce statutory regulations, it could effectively discourage, deter and restrict such investigative journalism that is in the public interest.”