A free press has long been considered a crucial pillar of democracy. Keeping the public informed of local, national, and world events, providing an outlet for comment, opinion, dialogue, and criticism, and holding public officials accountable are all indispensable public services offered by a robust and free press. Attempts to restrict the liberty to print and broadcast at will would no doubt result in mass uproar in many countries that consider themselves democratic. Yet, this is precisely what is happening across the globe, not just in repressive regimes but also in the liberal West, as the implications of the Leveson Inquiry in the United Kingdom show.
Following allegations of illegal phone hacking operations at one of Fleet Street’s most established institutions, The News of the World, the Leveson Inquiry aimed to propose new recommendations for the protection of privacy through independent regulation of the press. Like the banking sector, the press has proved itself to be susceptible to the perversions of power. It simply couldn’t resist the temptation to disregard investigative ethics and hack more than 5,000 personal phones. The system of self-regulation simply couldn’t keep up. The News of the World was subsequently shut down and scores of journalists arrested; it seemed that not even legal prohibitions on such behaviour could satisfy the urge for a scoop.
The Leveson Inquiry highlighted the complete failure of the Press Complaints Commission, the original regulatory body, to prevent severely damaging stories about celebrities and members of the public, some of the most notorious violations of privacy being against Milly Dowler, the parents of Madeleine McCann, and victims of the 7/7 bombings. The complete devastation phone hacking brought to many people’s lives cannot be justified by a blanket right to free speech and freedom of expression. Like any rights, the rights of a free press come with responsibilities, and if these responsibilities can only be backed up by a system of incentives and regulation, this is what must happen. The media must be at the service of the citizens, not part of the cynicism of a profiteering, morally bankrupt corporate class. The Inquiry’s recommendations were widely backed by the UK national newspapers, who accepted the majority of the recommendations, but with the notable exception of statutory underpinning, a move that would see press regulation enshrined in law.
Yet, a late night backroom deal brokered by all three main political parties resulted in exactly that. While the new regulator was established by royal charter and was not technically the result of a specific law, it will need a parliamentary vote of a two-thirds majority to be overturned and stipulates that courts can fine newspapers up to £1 million in the event of systematic breaches of privacy. This political compromise allows regulation to be underpinned but still independent from government, although some have criticised the deal for being too prescriptive in being able to order fines and apologies. While David Cameron has insisted this does not constitute statutory underpinning, the deal has caused much of the British press to decry the beginning of the destruction of press freedom, with many newspapers flatly refusing to sign up to the opt-in regulator. Victims of the phone hacking scandal, however, widely welcomed the deal, relieved to finally see political deadlock over the issue resolved through regulation sufficiently independent from the industry itself.
Whatever the possible benefits of regulating the press, it was the shady backroom deal secured in the early hours of the morning that seemed to signal the dilution of the democratic nature of a free press separate from the influence of politics. Some have denounced the deal as based on vengeance; the impositions of fines for unethical deeds seems unnecessary considering these actions are already illegal, and the fact that several members of the pressure group Hacked Off were present at the late night negotiations has for many undermined the legitimacy of the charter.
Although restoring justice and responsibility in the press is no doubt a laudable goal, questions have been raised over the international implications of one of the world’s most visible democracies giving the green light to statutory regulation. Given repressive regimes’ tendency to begin crackdowns on political opposition by targeting journalists, does regulation of the British press essentially licence censorship and restriction on political comment in the press in less democratic states? This is especially a danger in former British colonies such as Uganda and Kenya, where existing press laws are already based on restrictions on the press introduced by the British during colonialism and are allowed to continue under the pretence of ensuring a responsible media. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that in 2012, 232 reporters, photographers, and editors were jailed worldwide. Much of this is predicated on anti-terror laws and thinly veiled attempts to silence anti-government views, but how much further could repressive regimes go if armed with the acceptability of statutory regulation of the press?
The independence of the press from political interference is essential for democratic accountability and the public interest, but experiences such as the phone hacking scandal highlight how it may not always be clear what exactly public interest involves. Existing laws already guarded against such invasions of privacy, and the new regulation deal has been branded irrelevant for its inability to provide protection in all areas of the media, as it will not apply to some online media outlets. The deal could prove to be damaging to democracy in Britain: the exclusion of the victims of phone hacking, apart from Hacked Off, which was not seen to be representative of all victims’ opinions, seemed to indicate the vested interests of the press industry were more important than those genuinely wronged by the scandal. The wider implications of such a deal remain to be seen in the global context. What chance does the promotion of liberal democracy abroad have when some of its most fervent advocates concede that freedom cannot always come first?