LONDON – Britain’s politicians have finally struck a deal to regulate their country’s press. Whether the press will allow itself to be regulated is another question.
Across Britain, newspaper front pages voiced disquiet at the establishment of an independent watchdog that would have the power to order prominent apologies and take complaints into arbitration — a move one newspaper described as overturning centuries of press freedom.
“UNFREE SPEECH,” was the headline of London’s business-oriented free sheet City A.M. The Sun, Britain’s top-selling tabloid, compared the new body to the infamous Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s “1984,” while The Independent displayed the words “HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!” written in supersize font.
Although many in Britain acknowledge the need for reform of the country’s press following a damaging scandal over phone hacking, bribery, and other media misdeeds, newspaper groups are concerned that the new body agreed to by politicians will become a burdensome regulator, bogging down newspaper groups with endless and expensive complaints about coverage.
Some kicked back against the idea of any independent oversight of the newspaper industry. In its editorial, The Daily Mail wrote that “for the first time since the 17th century, there will be political interference with British newspapers.”
“Rubbish,” said Jean Seaton, who teaches media history at London’s University of Westminster. She described suggestions that bureaucrats would be peering over journalists’ shoulders as “absolute baloney.”
The watchdog being set up would replace the widely discredited Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory body run by newspaper editors. Seaton said the main difference was that the new body would have official recognition and be subject to periodic audits to make sure it was doing its job — and that it hadn’t been “captured” by the very editors it was meant to police.
“There is nothing to be frightened of in that,” she said.
But across the British journalism world, worries persisted. Many wondered whether — or how — foreign news providers could be compelled to participate in the new system. Concerns also bubbled up in the British blogosphere, where political writer Paul Staines warned that citizen journalists who joined the regulatory regime would find every little online grievance being magnified into a formal complaint. Those who refused to submit to the regulator would become “media outlaws,” he wrote.
Des Freedman, who teaches media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, acknowledged that there was little clarity as to whether bloggers would have to submit to the new regime
But he said independent regulation was overdue, describing an entrenched corruption in newsrooms that he said had pressured British journalists into breaking the rules.
“There was a tendency to take any shortcut that was necessary to get to a story, whether it was bullying, bribery, as well as hacking,” he said. “The hope is that these reforms will empower ordinary journalists to do the job that they want to do.”
What happens next isn’t entirely clear. Some British newspapers — the left-leaning Guardian and The Independent among them — have expressed guarded support for the watchdog. Others — including the Times and the Mail — have hinted at legal challenges. Britain’s Spectator Magazine has already announced plans to boycott the new regulator. If others could follow suit, the system could fall apart before it even begins.
Freedman said he doubted the threats would amount to much, calling it “both politically highly risky and financially undesirable.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that he was convinced of the new watchdog’s merits.
“I’m confident that we’ve set up a system that is practical, that is workable,” he said. “It protects the freedom of the press, but it’s a good, strong self-regulatory system for victims, and I’m convinced it will work and it will endure.”
Raphael Satter can be reached at: http://raphae.li/twitter