Press Industry v. Government Control

newsoftheworld

Le 28 octobre s’est tenu le procès de deux anciens rédacteurs en chefs du tabloïd News of the World. Suite au scandale, une enquête publique sur les pratiques et l’éthique de la presse britannique présidée par Lord Justice Leveson a été ouverte. Celle-ci condamne la presse à être contrôlée par une  instance de régulation encadrée par la loi, une sentence approuvé par le Conseil privé de la reine par le biais d’une charte royale. L’industrie de la presse est scandalisée.

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Let us begin with the phone-hacking scandal, also called Murdochgate: News of the World was already under investigation in 2005 for hacking the phones of stars and royal members. In June 2011, the Guardian published an investigation into the practices of the tabloid News of The World. The newspaper reported that the News of the World had hired a private detective to investigate the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl (who was already dead) hacking her voicemail, a process they had also implemented for the relatives of victims of the London attacks in 2005 and the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. News of The World then bid farewell to its readers in a final publication “Thanks and Goodbye” issued on July 10.

The Leveson Inquiry and its recommendations

The previous regulation organization, the Press Complaints Commission, was discredited because its president didn’t do anything when the Murdochgate scandal burst. The reasons of its inaction is he was linked to R.Murdoch, which is why David Cameron announced that a public government inquiry would be summoned up and named Lord Justice Leveson as chairman of the  public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. In November 2012  the Leveson Report was published and made recommendations for a new, independent regulation body which would be recognized by the state through new laws. The 2000-page-report advocates the establishment of very strong rules to avoid the excesses of newspapers. Until then, the British daily was self-regulated. The government then launched a broad consultation among the various political parties, the British press and associations of victims of illegal wiretapping. But the newspaper industry is outraged and refuses any form of control by the government.

A Royal Charter

The government tried to ease people’s minds by using a royal charter. But what does it consist in? The Royal Charter is based on a council and a recognition body, in charge of the validation of the Council’s decisions. The Privy Council is a group of cabinet ministers (whose exact number and identity is unknown) that offers the Queen a text to sign. The Royal Charter would govern therefore a new regulatory body. Indeed it will create a panel to adjudicate complaints against the press. It is composed of six to eight people who may not be from the world of media, politics or administration and has the power to impose fines to newspapers (up to one million pounds!). So the Privy Council largely put the profession of journalism aside when the Royal Charter was decided. Indeed, whereas the Press Complaints Commission was an intermediary between the readers and the press industry, the project of the Royal Charter do not involve any journalist or any editing director.

On October 11th, the government’s decision was signed by the 3 most important political parties: the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party and the Tories. It insisted changes to the regulatory body require two thirds of the Parliament approval. To the press industry, that constitutes the last straw that breaks the camel’s back! A group of representatives from major newspapers rejected the project. To them it is merely a threat to centuries of press freedom.

Thus they propose an alternative project (IPSO:  Independent Press Standards Organization) and insist that any change in the content of the charter be approved by the entire newspaper industry. But the government refused. Today the press is free to sign the charter or not, but if press editions publish articles inconvenient to what predicts the Charter, they would face higher fines for breaches.

But the IPSO project didn’t stop after the government refused it. The Independent, the Financial Times, and the Guardian, still have major concerns about the degree to which IPSO could be independent from the industry itself. But they are equally critical of the idea of signing up the Royal Charter.

The problem is that IPSO only satisfies 12 of the 38 Leveson recommendations that are needed for a press self-regulator to be independent and effective. In his recommendation, Leveson advocates  for a new regulator to be overseen by a Recognition Panel, as a guarantee of its independence. But the IPSO “founding fathers”  believe such a panel would set a crucial precedent of state regulation – while their own rejected charter would have been enough to guarantee independence. So according to Leveson’s criterion, IPSO is not independent.

Are the current proposals for regulation really a threat to the freedom of the press?

The press has failed to provide sufficient penalties to ensure effective self-regulation in the past. But the government should never have a role in regulating the press. Some say deservedly that the charter is an attack on journalism and press freedom. The question is complex. The freedom of the press won’t die with this charter and the newspapers won’t be censored. But this charter will always cause suspicion. Unfortunately, the new control system is unlikely to be more effective than the former one.

Justine CARLES & Célia SACUTO

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