A Never-ending Debate
by Peter Preston Posted Tue, Apr 6 2010
In one sense, it’s an odd thing to be talking about today as the media world bursts with blogs and squeaks with Tweets. Who on earth wants to start regulating the printed press when cyberspace plays open house for all the views and news you need? Isn’t this the daftest time to try to find new ways of shackling newspapers? And yet, of course, the debate about press regulation never ends.
It’s back in Britain at the moment because The Guardian has fallen out with the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission over the stringency of PCC investigations into some old—but important—cases of phone-tapping at Rupert Murdoch’s big Sunday tabloid, the News of the World. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, says the PCC is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon again, and an assortment of learned counsel and media-standards organizations (not to mention the giant International Federation of Journalists) is backing his stand.
In many ways, though, the rights and wrongs of this particular row are less important than the simple fact that Britain—from disbanded Press Council to current Press Complaints Commission—seems to have terrible trouble deciding who, if anyone, should keep a supervisory eye on press behavior. The tabloids like a self-regulatory system because, almost two decades ago, they came close to having a statutory regime imposed on them by Parliament. Some, though not all, at the serious end of journalism have deep reservations about self-regulation because, to them, it doesn’t seem tough and punitive enough. Politicians rather enjoy warning newspapers to clean up their act and threatening fresh laws to make them do so, yet somehow prime ministers from Thatcher to Blair to Brown enjoy offering tea and sympathy to Rupert Murdoch when he visits Downing Street—and they don’t want pesky little legal disputes getting in the way of benign back-scratching. Judges, meanwhile, want clear law to follow or misty, confusing law that they can shape to their own purposes.
In short, there’s absolutely no consensus. Editors can’t agree what’s needed. Proprietors follow the varying paths of particular financial advantage with utter predictability. Politicians blow hot and cold, preferring to threaten rather than dictate to editors in a fractious democracy. And many journalists show little or no solidarity with others in the trade they share. But that’s just the Disunited Kingdom. Tunes change as you cross frontiers. American newspapers, hymning the need for trust and responsibility, sometimes appoint ombudsmen to regulate in-house, but America has never been very keen on the idea of industry press councils setting standards for all. On the contrary, save for the occasional experiment at state level, press councils aren’t part of the U.S. scene because, it’s argued, they blur the case for First Amendment rights—just redundant braces if the central constitutional belt is strong enough.
In India, the press council fight has been to keep government appointments out of the action. In the West Indies, the U.K. model has been transplanted with aplomb. In the Balkans of eastern Europe, the scramble is to put self-regulatory press councils in place so that politicians, flourishing privacy and defamation laws, can be repulsed. Everywhere you go the answers are subtly different, but everywhere, too, the intrinsic threat and the response to it are the same.
Time to be honest. Do editors volunteer to draw up codes of conduct to sit in judgment on fellow editors who haven’t followed those rules? Of course not. They do it because they fear that a responsibility void would be filled by politicians. Self-regulation, at first impulse, is a defense mechanism. But that doesn’t make it cynical or redundant. On the contrary, it’s the best weapon we have in the constant battle for public opinion, which in turn, helps keep lawmakers at bay. We need it, and the realistic alternative, a regime imposed by politicians and polished by judges, is infinitely worse.But that’s only the beginning of argument, not a conclusion—because self-regulation is a coat of many colors. In America, it’s treated as an extraneous device, one that can be simply replaced by editors delivering speeches about the wonders of “Trust.” In Albania or Serbia, it’s seen as an essential barrier against day-to-day interference by big politicians and big businessmen. And in poor old, insular Britain, its reputation is as good or as bad as the last aggrieved complainant, grasping lawyer or scornful journalist you talked to. Consensus? There is no true consensus. And the lack of any such basic agreement tells you more than you want to know about the essential, worldwide struggle for freedom of the press.
It’s important, sure enough; most editors or reporters will say that instinctively. But is it so important, day to day, that its demands on time, effort and responsibility are automatically acknowledged?
Don’t hold you breath. In this long, hard battle for something better, there are enemies without, but never forget the enemies—and demons—within.