Press Freedom at Risk
Millions of Britons were justifiably outraged over last year’s serial revelations of illegal and unethical behavior by the powerful and influential tabloid press in Britain. But the regulatory remedies proposed Thursday by an official commission of inquiry seem misplaced, excessive and potentially dangerous to Britain’s centuries-old traditions of a press free from government regulation.
In a nearly 2,000-page report, the commission, led by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, cataloged the glaring misdeeds of Rupert Murdoch’s sensationalist tabloid, The News of the World, which is no longer published.
Noting, among other things, the tabloid’s “reckless disregard for accuracy,” and “lack of respect for individual privacy,” it called on Parliament to create an independent regulatory body with the authority to fine newspapers up to $1.6 million for violating its guidelines. This new organization, which newspapers could join voluntarily, would replace the largely ineffective Press Complaints Commission, run by the news industry itself, which is supposed to uphold a code of ethical journalistic practices agreed to by participating publications.
Creating an independent regulatory body would require new legislation. To his credit, Prime Minister David Cameron seems opposed to proceeding in that direction. Conscientious members of all political parties should oppose it as well.
British newspapers operate in a harsher legal environment than the American press. They must navigate an Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes the publication of classified information and a plaintiff-friendly libel law, which lacks American-style exceptions for public figures. But they have been free from government licensing since 1694. A regulatory panel backed by law is a big step in the wrong direction.
Press independence is as essential a bulwark of political liberty in Britain as it is everywhere. That independence should not, and need not, be infringed upon now. Much of the conduct described in the report on Thursday — hacking into voice mail messages of ordinary citizens and illegally obtaining medical records — is not news gathering. They are illegal acts under British law. So are bribery, corrupt relations with police officials and political figures and other abuses attributed to the tabloid press.
In such instances, newspapers can claim no shield against civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution. Those remedies, not government regulation, are the right ways to stop the kind of behavior alleged against The News of the World, and good deterrents against misconduct by other papers.