Let morals exact change

Statutory regulation is not the answer, says Tim Luckhurst of the Leveson report. The press must be free and control itself

December 6, 2012



Credit: Miles Cole


I cannot join the chorus of glee with which many of my colleagues and friends have greeted Sir Brian Leveson's proposals for a system of press regulation underpinned by statute.

Throughout the era of democracy in the UK, it has been a principle of our unwritten constitution that press freedom cannot be reconciled with any form of political involvement in the regulation of newspapers. This principle is crucial because, here, executive and legislature are not separate. Our ministers sit in the House of Commons and lead a parliamentary majority. This gives British governments unusual power to make laws. To balance it, this country has developed a system in which checks and balances are exercised in the public interest by the press. Statutory underpinning of press regulation would create an unprecedented anomaly: parliamentary oversight of a body the electorate depends on to scrutinise parliament.

My sympathy and concern for the victims of atrocious journalism is sincere. Leveson calls them "innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained". His is an eloquent description and, to the extent that his proposals are designed to ensure that there should be fewer such victims in future, they are admirable. But equal to my sympathy is my conviction that the press must not be regulated for the sake of victims of atrocious journalism alone. A free press exists to serve the interests of all. Intellectual and political leaders including Sir Winston Churchill, Karl Marx and J.S. Mill have expounded this crucial point. It was at risk of becoming lost in the furore surrounding the Leveson inquiry. But I am reassured that a group of MPs from all the major parties remains committed to supporting this point in the debate that has now erupted over whether to implement the Leveson report.

The first issue for that group is how to achieve regulation that can meet the needs of victims while nurturing and promoting the diversity and plurality of journalism that is essential to the health of our public sphere.

Beyond that requirement are two issues of equal significance. First, how to avoid a rule-based system with all the form-filling and bureaucratic pressure that would undermine utterly the independent press Leveson wishes to defend.

Second, how to avoid conveying to the developing world any impression that Britain has endorsed state licensing of journalism. One powerful objection to statutory underpinning is not that it would make Britain like Zimbabwe, but that it would give authoritarian rulers a pretext to emulate British press regulation for less altruistic reasons.

Leveson makes admirable proposals with regard to conduct, arbitration and compensation. Versions of them should be implemented. He makes equally useful proposals regarding independent management of a future regulatory body. But no statute is required to achieve these objectives. Parts of the press have been caught with their hands in the till. The world has changed. Newspapers must now take seriously demands that they have previously ignored. Evidence exposed during the Leveson inquiry has made this inevitable. The sensible approach would be to give the moral pressure unleashed by this exposure time to do its work. That can be achieved - and the real risk of harm at home and abroad averted - by threatening to legislate if the press does not agree a comprehensive system of self-regulation, investigation and arbitration soon.

But let us not pretend that there is no difference of principle between supporters of press regulation underpinned by statute and independent opponents. We disagree about definition of the public interest. I believe it must include journalism chosen by readers of popular newspapers including the Daily Mirror, The Sun and the Daily Mail as well as the version preferred by people, including me, who admire The Guardian, The Times and The Independent. Statutory underpinning risks promoting what Mick Hume, my fellow campaigner for press freedom, accurately calls "a cultural manifesto masquerading as morality".

I experienced at first hand the chilling sanctimony with which supporters of statutory underpinning celebrated the closure of the News of the World, a newspaper that brought entertainment to the homes of millions. I have heard them thrill at the prospect that the conservative-minded Daily Mail might find its reporting constrained. Their contempt for the untrammelled freedom of expression that I consider a bedrock of liberty depresses me profoundly.

Last year, writing in Times Higher Education, I argued that the real crisis facing the newspaper industry is one of economics, occasioned by the migration of readers to the internet ("Black and white and dead all over", 8 September 2011).

The illiberal Left believes a Leveson law would be a problem only for the editors and proprietors of populist tabloid newspapers. I am concerned for the people who read them and the democracy in which we live. A Leveson Act will do nothing to restore high-minded broadsheets to profitability and it will send ever more tabloid readers in search of entertainment to the internet. I hope political controversy will kill the idea of statutory underpinning, as it has on every occasion since 1945.

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