The press will have to overcome new hardships

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Alors que la fin de News of the World, considérée comme une avancée vers une presse plus éthique en Grande-Bretagne, avait semblé apaiser l’opinion publique après l’affaire des écoutes téléphoniques, la publication du rapport Leveson concernant la création d’une nouvelle forme de régulation de la presse britannique, a relancé de tumultueux débats autour de la liberté d’expression.

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How did the press itself end up in the headlines? In November 2012, Lord Justice Leveson produced a report called the “Leveson report” following the phone-hacking scandal. It found the press had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”. Leveson suggests that newspapers should continue to be self-regulated. He wants a new press standards body and a new code of conduct. The new press standards body would deal with complaints against newspapers via a cheap and easy arbitration process, so that people who feel they have been wronged by the press can get justice without having to go to court. The new body would be able to fine newspapers up to 1 million pounds if it found they had acted badly. It would also promote high standards and encourage transparency. Besides, Leveson recommends that body be backed by legislation.

Regarding the press and its excesses, the three main political parties have agreed that this rampant trend must be stopped. The phone-hacking scandal ended with the closure of News of the World. At the time it seemed like a great leap towards the protection of privacy. But libel is still rampant. And the high amounts of fines British tabloids have to pay do not prevent them from chasing private information about celebrities’s lives.

As the British government is fed up with this kind of practices which has now become common, it will change the law regarding the press. The Crime and Courts Bill will be affected. Indeed, publishers will be urged to sign up to the new regulator by the legal threat of exemplary damages. The second amendment, to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, will ensure the charter can only by altered with a two-thirds parliamentary majority. But who will be concerned by this control emerging from the new regulator? Newspapers, magazines or websites containing “news-related material” will be controlled.

Could this be regarded as a threat for press freedom? Many Tory editorial writers and columnists have denounced any external constraint on their right to have a good time and keep claiming that Britain is facing the end of “300 years of press freedom”. But for quite a long time now, British newspapers have been publishing large amounts of biased articles to serve the political interest of their proprietor. To achieve this goal they have no consideration toward the journalistic and editorial code of best practice. They don’t bother using phone hacking or paying for information which doesn’t respect people’s privacy. The freedom of speech is therefore as much threatened by big press groups defending their interests as it would be by a new press standards body. What matters is more the individual freedom of speech than the freedom of the press.

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Besides the number of people who actually read the press is increasingly low. People don’t stop paying attention to the news but they rather read them on the internet. However, the Leveson report does not take this into account. Thus any new form of regulation based on this report may be outdated in a couple of years. And what is really at stake, in this new digital era, will certainly be commercial viability in the internet age, not government censorship at a time when censorship looks ever more difficult in free societies.

Lucille COTELLE & Julia SUGIER

 

 

 

 

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