The PressBof request for a Royal Charter was rejected by the privy council, but it seems that some form of Royal Charter on press regulation will be approved by the end of the month. William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute whose work focuses on the emergence of a Fifth Estate, warns that the Royal Charter route could mean the end of the Fourth.
The UK is on the brink – if not beyond – of undermining the independence of the press. Lord Leveson has repeatedly recommended that the press should be governed by ‘independent self regulation’ but the development of a statute or Royal Charter to accomplish this is simply inconsistent with that principle.
You can mark the beginning of the end of the Fourth Estate – a key institution of our pluralist democracy – if the decision to grant a Royal Charter moves ahead. It will mandate how the press will regulate itself, and therefore conform to what others have argued – rightly in my opinion – to be government mandated regulation.
The present debate has been artfully moved along to dismiss the question of press independence by re-framing the debate to focus on the form that a Royal Charter will take. As politicians focus on the fine details of a regulatory framework that are impenetrable to a lay person, with quick references to the Leveson principles (buried in 4 volumes of close to 2000 pages), and other documents that no member of the public will have at hand, it seems the decision has been made.
The irony is that all parties seem set on developing a state mandated self-regulatory regime for the press, when that was not really the source of the problem. Remember: The crisis over press regulation was triggered primarily over phone hacking, and related claims that reporters had bribed police.
Back to the beginning
A number of mechanisms exist to deal with each of these problems, and they are not the central role of a Press Complaints Commission.
Phone hacking (which we know now to be far broader than the press) is a matter of privacy and data protection. As such, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) had addressed the issue well before it went ballistic when Mumsnet raised valid concerns over this practice in relation to the family of Milly Dowler, even if these concerns were based in large part on inaccurate information. I do not blame the ICO, as they sought to address phone hacking, but they have a legitimate role and resources to deal with this issue that no press complaints commission would ever possess. It was wrong to blame the press complaints commission for not tackling this problem. Instead, any uncertainty over the protection of the public from phone hacking needs to be clarified in privacy and data protection, and more resources provided to deal with this problem.
Likewise, bribery is a matter for the Metropolitan Police. Does anyone truly believe that any press complaints commission could investigate and challenge the Metropolitan Police? It was wrong to blame the press complaints commission for this problem.
Laws may have been broken, but they were not laws that were the responsibility of the press complaints commission to redress. The commission may have been viewed as ineffectual, and lost support in the industry. Perhaps it was viewed as a good sacrificial lamb to help make this crisis go away, but it obviously has not done the trick.
Making big sacrifices
So a Royal Charter is proposed that will establish a press regulator that will address the weaknesses of the previous self-regulatory body. Never mind that the self-regulator was held responsible for hacking and bribery that it could not reasonably be expected to correct. Moreover, to create this new ‘self-regulatory’ body, and create incentives for papers to come under this new body, papers who refuse will be exposed to greater penalties, such as for libel, while those papers under the protection of the Royal Charter will have more protection.
Its advocates argue that as long as freedom of expression is balanced correctly with the rights of the individuals in the news, then there should be no problem. Of course, balancing these rights is extremely difficult and is within the remit of any press complaints commission, assuming laws have not been violated.
The Royal Charter gains credibility from the support of some of the most respected papers. They might not see these measures directed at their papers, but instead at some of the tabloid press. I fear they will quickly regret the bargain they have struck, and I have nothing put praise for a few courageous editors who are likely to reject these protections in order to maintain their independence from government.
The critical feature of the press in a liberal democratic society is that it is independent of government, and therefore able to hold the government more accountable. This is the essence of a pluralist democracy. The Royal Charter will undermine the independence of the press, and the Fourth Estate.
I should emphasize that I am not opposed to regulation per se, such as if it were designed to protect the press from government and political interference. The Royal Charter, unfortunately, creates a body that is a risk to an independent press.
So get ready for the demise of Britain’s Fourth Estate. Invented in Britain. Coined by Edmund Burke. Taken for granted and undermined by a broad consensus of politicians. Lord Leveson said he supports ‘independent self regulation’, but the proposal is for government mandated regulation, which is exactly what we will get under a statute, a Royal Charter or any other state mandate.
Alternatively, focus on the real problems. Bolster the ICO in ways to more effectively deal with phone hacking and other invasions of privacy. Make sure the police have been safeguards on bribery and relations with the press. And with respect to accuracy, and hounding of individuals, use the Internet and the press to expose poor reporting and bad practice, with the support of any press complaints commission set up by the press in the aftermath of this crisis of Britain’s Fourth Estate.
William Dutton is the Professor of Internet Studies at the University of Oxford.
This post was originally published on the LSE Media Policy Project Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.