What a golden opportunity there was for the world’s newspaper editors to put the record straight on press regulation in Britain. Their industry umbrella group the World Association of Newspapers sent a delegation to the UK because, they said, they were concerned about “threats to press freedom”.
They came here on a fact-finding mission, and even made time to speak to the dozens of academics, the civil society groups, and the victims of press abuse who support the Charter framework for press self-regulation and who gave them the facts with all the supporting evidence. And they could have sent a clear, unambiguous message to the leaders of authoritarian regimes around the world:
“Whatever propaganda messages you may be hearing from the thundering editorial columns of Britain’s national newspapers they are, in the words of that great newspaperman Harold Evans, a “gross distortion” and a “staggering” misrepresentation of the truth. So you have no licence to exploit the arguments of a tiny coterie of self-interested editors as justification for suppressing press freedom in your own countries.”
But they blew it. They ignored the reasoned arguments of dedicated free speech advocates such as Tom Stoppard and Salman Rushdie. Instead of producing an authoritative, impartial and accurate overview of the UK debate on press regulation, their report, published today, has reverted to the half-truths, omissions and wilful misinformation in which our newspapers have excelled and which have characterised so much of this debate.
They met the Media Standards Trust, and read its forensic critique of the new press regulator IPSO and its indefensible claim to meet Leveson’s main principles. But they fail even to acknowledge this report’s existence.
They met some of the victims of press abuse and heard just a tiny selection of the grotesque distortions, intrusions into private grief, and private data theft that featured so heavily in evidence in Leveson. But they barely acknowledge the trauma and distress inflicted on ordinary people by some national newspapers in the name of “journalism”.
They were told explicitly about the cycle of abuse and press distortion that have defined the history of press regulation reform in the UK, as powerful newspaper groups repeatedly and cynically exploit their corporate power. But they demonstrate a total ignorance of the historical context for Leveson and the reforms now enacted.
And it was repeatedly explained as a matter of fact – not argument or conjecture – that the Charter framework itself did not allow the remotest opportunity for political interference in the press. And still they manage to conclude that “industry concerns over political interference in the press are well-founded”.
Probably the key passage in this long attempt at industry self-justification is where the report acknowledges working models of “co-regulation” – that is, with some statutory underpinning – in well-established European democracies such as Ireland, Denmark and Finland. So why not in the UK? Because the British press is apparently a “unique exception” and its lack of proper oversight “permits it to vigorously pursue enquiries where others may not“.
Pause a minute to consider the implications of that logic. First, it suggests that Finland and Denmark – which lie respectively 1st and 7th in the current Press Freedom Index while the UK languishes in 33rd place – are somehow prevented from pursuing the kind of independent watchdog journalism that is vital for a democracy. That is manifestly nonsense. Second, it suggests that vigorous defenders of hard-hitting investigative journalism such as Harry Evans and Nick Davies don’t know what they’re talking about. That is equally absurd. And third, it suggests that the victims of press abuse are little more than collateral damage, regrettable but necessary road-kill in the pursuit of a wholly untrammelled press culture.
It is frankly hogwash, almost laughable in its attempt to reconcile the long-standing free press reputations of many democratic countries, whose regulatory systems are rooted in statute, with the hysterical declamations from large sections of our own press that the slightest measure of legal backing means the end of 300 years of press freedom.
It is a great shame that this apparently experienced international delegation fell wholesale for the self-serving corporate blather of UK publishers. Of course there are differences of opinion and passionately held views on a difficult issue. But there was no excuse for systematically ignoring those of us who gave up significant time to explain some basic, underlying facts about Britain’s press history and political constitution. Instead of a balanced commentary based on impartial analysis and proper argumentation, which could have condemned the world’s dictators for their pathetic attempts to rationalise abuses of press freedom, WAN-IFRA have colluded in a propaganda exercise. An opportunity to tell truth to unbridled power around the world has been squandered in favour of yet another industry whitewash.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. He met the WAN-IFRA delegation and contributed to its final report.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced with permission and thanks