Press Freedom and Press Responsibility
The Royal Charter being set up in the wake of the Leveson Report marks an end to a period of 300 years in which government did not regulate the press. It is unprecedented in this country’s democratic history and should therefore be approached with great care.
One does not have to look far to find support for a truly free press among the great and the good, and in many ways journalism, unregulated by the state, is in effect an unofficial arm of good government. Where even democratic political parties might see mutual benefit for themselves in stitching up a deal at the expense of the electorate, the press remains at liberty to publish the inconvenient truth that would unseat an elected official or support a statesman whose name has wrongly been tarnished for the sake of personal political gain.
The press has no legislative or coercive power of its own and it has no royal charter exhorting it to ‘inform, ‘educate’ or ‘entertain’. Indeed it should have neither of these things, for in possessing them it would naturally become a part of the national establishment and forfeit its ability to remain completely independent from the state and so be fully able to exercise its critical faculties.
But while the press may be a kind of unofficial arm of good governance, this is a long way from saying it can operate outside of the law. No responsible government could fail to implement measures curbing the activities of journalists, newspapers or television where it was clear that wrongdoing was tolerated in the name of ‘getting the truth out’. Violations of privacy, such as the Leveson Enquiry investigated, are and have long been illegal. Press freedom never extended to allow phone hacking.
In a totalitarian regime one can understand a free press as a legitimate form of political resistance, but not in modern Britain. It is plain that the behaviour of the press has, in recent years, been far from commendable. The reputation of the tabloid press has sunk even lower than it was just five years ago and even the broadsheet newspapers are in danger of turning into an extension of daytime television.
There are no winners in the Royal Charter being established to regulate the British media, except perhaps a few celebrities who resent that their fame has brought with it the unwanted curiosity of some unscrupulous journalists. But it is also plainly true that there were no winners in journalists behaving unscrupulously in the first place. For all the moral pomp of journalistic criticism across the political and editorial spectrum, it is difficult to take what ‘the media’ says without a very large pinch of salt. The credibility of the press has been brought low, but not by government. It has been the media’s own abuses of its freedom that have tarnished its reputation for integrity and, most regrettably, harmed its effectiveness to freely criticise the state. The government’s new Royal Charter is a break from a tradition of liberty that we may live to sorely regret, but more regrettable still has been a gung-ho press with journalists more interested in causing a media sensation than in reporting the truth with accuracy.