30th Nov 2012

Why a Press Watchdog is a Bad Idea

The Leveson Inquiry has finally reached its conclusion – thank goodness, I really didn’t want to witness any more celebrities sulking over media institutions they otherwise depend on for their livelihood – and the verdict is, I think, disappointing in two senses.  Disappointing because Lord Justice Leveson’s call for an “independent, self-regulated” press is hopelessly ambiguous, if not oxymoronic. It was a weak call that plays into the hands of those on the side of a status quo. And also disappointing because, despite the ambiguity, Leveson does ultimately lean towards a form of statutory regulation by recommending special laws that would apply only to print/online newspapers and not, strangely, to other online communications such as blogging and tweeting.

My second point here indicates my position on press regulation. I’m not in favour. Yes, ordinary people – as well as celebs – have had their privacy invaded and their lives disrupted by irresponsible tabloid hackers. Yes, some very nasty and underhand business, involving shady private detectives and corrupt police officers, has dragged investigative journalism into the gutter. But no, a press watchdog is not the answer to better media ethics.

My anti-regulation argument is threefold. First and foremost, state regulation of the press is premised on the false assumption that newspapers exert a deep influence on public opinion. Politicians and other elite public figures are terrified of the press and spend much of their time either loving-up, or avoiding, the journalists who write about them. But all the evidence points in the opposite direction. The truth is that newspapers are losing readers – and huge amounts of money – year after year, and that most people are seeking news and entertainment elsewhere, with Facebook now far more powerful than any news organisation could ever dream of becoming. So why waste public money legislating a dying public institution? Politicians should seek out and take note of real public opinion, as should other guardians of public service, and that way they would start building public trust again (what a novel concept!).

Second, and related to this first point, the best form of regulation, also known as democracy-in-action, is the decision being made by people every minute of the day to stop purchasing newspapers (and other media products) that don’t satisfy their ‘public’ interests. We all have a choice to buy or not to buy. The need for TV regulation in Britain, of course, evolved from the initial power-monopoly enjoyed by the BBC. With the press, however, choice has always been available, and now, more so than ever, competition for consumers is desperately fierce. And the history of democracy-in-action tells us, with one or two exceptions, that the good will come out… Interestingly, consumer response to yesterday’s news is an excellent case in point. While the BBC News site (along with all the other major UK news outlets) led with the Leveson headlines, that story only appeared at #9 in the list of most read stories – indeed, more people were interested in the banning of bestiality in Germany!

Third, there is actually no need for more regulation. The existing regulation, also known as the law, would have been quite sufficient in preventing the phone hacking scandal, had it been properly enforced. What The News of the World committed, when hacking the phones of Milly Dowler and others, was a criminal offence. Sadly, certain corrupt police officers colluded in these criminal acts and failed the people they were supposed to protect. But no one should be above the law, and at least criminal proceedings are now under way.

Which brings me to a final point, in support of press freedom, in that we shouldn’t forget that is was investigative journalism of the good variety that helped to bring bad journalism to book – and it was also good journalism that exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal – and it was great journalism that overthrew the corruption of the Nixon administration all those years ago. No form of regulation should interfere with what is good about free speech, and a free press.

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