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Your Freedom to Publish

In the run-up to publication of the Leveson Report, Newspaper Society director David Newell challenges those advocating a system of press regulation underpinned by statute, saying they have singularly failed to address the fundamental issue at the heart of every citizen’s freedom of expression.

By David Newell

There are thousands of newspapers and magazines in the UK, and thousands of journalists that work for them. The evidence to Leveson has demonstrated that the real focus of his Inquiry has been on the behaviour of substantially less than one percent of those newspapers and magazines and the journalists which work for them. Indeed, the Leveson Inquiry and many of the advocates of Statutory press controls and structures have shown scant interest in the fundamental implications of any legal changes for the ninety nine percent plus and their inevitable impact on the vital roles which they perform. Their sense of responsibility and public value are in danger of being taken for granted with the real danger of ‘mass punishment’ being inflicted on them because of the behaviour of less than one percent.

The evidence has demonstrated that there are a lot of highly relevant laws - civil and criminal - and that there have been some apparent breaches of those laws by a minute proportion of those that work in the media. What it has not demonstrated is that there is significant media-related activity which is not covered by those laws which should be covered by yet more laws.

However damning commentators are about individual media companies or the PCC this should not lead to the conclusion that we need even more laws. It could lead to the conclusion that the laws are too complex and need simplifying and enforcing in a consistent manner. It could also lead to the conclusion that ethical standards vary within the media sectors and that the media should do much more to address ethical shortcomings through a new non statutory system of regulation of the type proposed by Lord Hunt and Lord Black.

It should not lead to the enactment of a statute regulating behaviour in designated media outlets on ethical grounds. However softly focused, or innocuous sounding, a statute-based media standards body would impact on everyone’s freedom of expression and everyone’s freedom to enjoy the words and images which result from that freedom. It would require a line to be redrawn by Parliament which would increase the range of media platforms which operate under state-supervised freedom of expression.

It would give Parliament the responsibility for constructing new controls over the publication of some written and spoken words and images but not of others. The argument is not only about the impossibility of regulating news gathering and publication activity on the World Wide Web. It is about listing and defining all media and publishing outlets and determining which should be subject to special controls and which should not. It is about determining the penalties which should be imposed on those publishing outlets which do not agree to be subject to a specific state regime or to pay for it. It is about justifying to any individual that his or her opinions will be more regulated by Act of Parliament if they are expressed in publication ‘x’ rather than publication ‘y’. It is about re-imposing on some media a licensing regime which was abolished in the 17th Century as an essential part of the UK’s democratic development which is underpinned by the freedom to publish.

Parliament would need to determine [or delegate to a State authority] which publications and their contributors would continue to be regulated exclusively by the general law of the land, and which would be regulated by the law of the land and by a special media regime. The proponents of a statutory regime have failed to address the fundamental issue. Can such a line be drawn on a rational, sustainable, fair and workable basis which does not impact fundamentally on freedom of expression and the freedom to publish and which achieves a real public benefit, which cannot be achieved by the general law of the land, which applies to everyone without fear or favour?

It surely is not possible in the twenty first century to do this by defining publications by their physical appearance or mode of delivery or regularity. What would be the rationale of exercising specific controls over all newspapers [national, regional, local, daily, weekly, monthly, religious, political, student, foreign and foreign language] and magazines [for all the consumer and the business communities], regardless of their type, publication record or ethical conduct, but to exclude all websites, government, public sector, commercial, charity, individual or special interest group newsletters, pamphlets and book and ‘e’ book publications? Put simply, the freedom to publish in the UK is rightly exercised by all sorts of individuals and organisations for a myriad of motivations and all having a choice as to their mode of publication. This helps guarantee wider democratic freedoms. To target for inclusion in a special statutory regime all those that exercise those freedoms purely on the basis that they have chosen to do so on newsprint or magazine grade paper cannot be justified on any fair evaluation of the evidence presented to Leveson.