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As the behavior of the News of The World comes under heavy scrutiny, it has once again become fashionable to assert that “self-regulation doesn’t work”, and that the Press Complaints Commission ought to be replaced with some kind of statutory check on the media. Writing for the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC suggests that we follow other nations in having “statutory ‘press ombudspersons’ who adjudicate public complaints, direct retractions and compensation, enforce rights of reply and monitor ethical standards.”
The Press Complaints Commission itself, is something of a fudge between civic action and state coercion. While it was established, nominally, as a means of self-regulation, it was nonetheless set up under duress: the Tory government of the early 1990s had threatened imminent government legislation if the press did not come up with a mechanism to regulate itself – and thus the PCC was born. What the likes of Geoffrey Robertson are calling for now, is full and explicit regulation of the press, backed up state power.
This would undoubtedly be a backwards step for our democracy. If we are opposed to censorship, then there is no way we can demand that a external body with officially sanctioned powers be given the general right to haul papers over the coals for what they publish. And as a citizen, I do not want or need a state-backed body to decide what I can and cannot read.
But perhaps more importantly, the News of The World scandal has shown that, when it comes to checking the worst elements of the British media, state coercion isn’t the only show in town. It was civil society that forced the News of The World to shut down. It was a prolonged campaign by the Guardian – combined well as excellent work of Libcon, Political Scrapbook, and many others involved in social media who campaigned for an advertising boycott – that brought things to where they are. In other words, there are ways of checking the power of the corporate press which do not involve extending the hardly disinterested power of the state into areas it really ought not to govern.
In a somewhat misconceived intervention, Brendan O’Neill has complained that the NOTW shut “under pressure from so-called liberal campaigners who ultimately felt disgust for the newspaper’s ‘culture’”, and that “History should record yesterday as a dark day for press freedom”. All I can say is that Brendan O’Neill appears to be using his very own definition of “press freedom”. For most people, it means the freedom of the press from the threat of punishment or coercion by the state. It does not mean the freedom to not to be campaigned against, or morally condemned. The principle of a free press goes hand-in-hand with our ability as citizens to cast judgements, and to deploy our own civic rights in campaigning against what we despise.
And so yesterday was a very good day, not only because it struck a blow against Murdoch, but also because it struck a blow for our own capacity as democratic citizens.
To contact Reuben email firstname.lastname@example.org