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Can we civilize the tabloids without losing press freedom?


By Mark Thompson*


The ongoing inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the media” in the United Kingdom spent last month taking statements from victims of the tabloid press. Some were famous (actors, footballers, etc.), while others were ordinary members of the public who for one reason or another—usually involving a stroke of terrible misfortune—had come into the spotlight of media attention.


The movie star Hugh Grant was eloquent in a restrained way. He suggested that the mighty Daily Mail might be implicated in the hacking scandal – which has so far tainted only the Murdoch press. If those suspicions are substantiated, the scandal would take on a new dimension, for the Mail is a mid-market paper, a hugely influential conservative force in British society, and supposedly a bridge between the tabloids and the quality papers.


The most effective testimony, however, came from the parents of children who had fallen victim to crimes. The picture of the tabloid press that emerges from their modest accounts of persecution and harassment is truly shocking. We all knew these things happened, but perhaps had not quite realized that the pursuit of marketable misery could sink to such depths or do such harm.


Those of us who are involved with efforts to raise the quality of media output have particular cause for reflection. Because we have consistently argued for models of best practice which—according to some of the most disinterested expert testimony in London—may not be able to succeed even in stable and affluent democracies like the UK. Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who did more than anyone else to break the story of phone-hacking by the tabloid press, told the Inquiry flatly that self-regulation of the press doesn’t work. “I don’t think this is an industry that is interested in or capable of self-regulation.”


Of course, we might say that even if self-regulation cannot deliver acceptable press behavior in the UK, this does not mean we were wrong to advocate self-regulation as a model in central and eastern Europe, and wherever else there was a chance of pushing structural reform of the media. It could still be the best (least worst) direction to move in, even if the destination is unattainable. But it doesn’t strike me as a comfortable reply. Like the tabloid press barons, we have decried any departure from strict self-regulation. Some self-accounting, and greater flexibility in future on these difficult matters, are surely called for.


When I had a chance to speak to the Inquiry about international models of press regulation, during its initial ‘teach-in’ sessions, I encouraged Lord Leveson and his team not to heed the warnings that anything except pure self-regulation would lead to chilling effects, or worse. “Self-regulation is often presented in a simplistic way which exaggerates its separateness from the statutory realm. For self-regulation always co-exists with a legal regime. Defamation laws, privacy laws, copyright laws, official secrets acts and terrorism laws, for example, all define the space within which self-regulation operates.”


As for statutory regulation, a term that British editors always utter with loathing: “It is important to be aware that a statutory underpinning is not necessarily toxic for freedom of expression. This awareness is especially important for your Inquiry, which needs to think outside the usual preconceptions and, indeed, outside the fear-mongering that may be promoted by one party or another in this arena.” Anyone looking for a positive example of statutory regulation need search no further than Denmark, which ranks above the UK in RSF’s press freedom index for 2010).


Fresh thinking on these matters is not abundant. Somebody who continues to supply it is the philosopher, Onora O’Neill, who takes an outsider’s no-nonsense approach to the media’s claims to be the unique watchdogs of democratic freedom. Her recent Reuters Lecture showed her in fine sceptical form. Even so, somebody still needs to show how a “statutory underpinning” to self-regulation would operate. O’Neill separates the journalistic process—which should be fully accountable—from the product, the journalism itself, which should remain free. That sounds fine, but how would the distinction work in practice? His lordship is giving no clue as to the direction of his own thinking. It is, however, on these matters that the value of his endeavors —and perhaps the fate of self-regulation of the British press—will eventually hang.


*****


*Mark Thompson is Reports Editor of the Open Society Media Program

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