With the success of the Hacked Off campaign in drawing attention to the mis-deeds of a (increasing) number of journalists, it was only a matter of time before a group sprung up to defend the interests of the unfairly (or so they would have it anyway) maligned print media. Step forward the cunningly named “Free Speech Network” who clearly have Hacked Off in their sights.
The “Free Speech Network” claims that:
…a vibrant free press and internet is essential to any democracy, ensuring that government and other institutions can be held to account by its citizens…
…as the Leveson Report nears completion, demands for regulation of the press backed by statute grow louder and more insistent. If those voices prevail, the impact on a free society would be incalculable at home and send dangerous messages abroad.
Portentous stuff. And a statement that will (as it is no doubt designed to do) cause alarm amongst all right-thinking people (as it is designed to do of course). It is certainly alarmist and seems to play fast and loose with the facts of the situation as they exist at present. Nowhere is this alarmist rhetoric better expressed than by the Mayor of London in yesterday’s Telegraph (an article already debunked by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian, so I won’t bother repeating the exercise).
The problem with the Free Speech Network’s argument with Hacked Off is best summed up by paraphrasing (quite drastically as it turns out) Ian Hislop of Private Eye: you don’t have to want state control of the press to suggest that there may be a need for an alternative regulatory system. The facts of the matter are that the existing regulatory framework has not worked. A voluntary system, as currently employed through the PCC, simply does not work.
At the beginning of 2011, the Daily Express demonstrated the weakness of the Press Complaints Commission as a regulatory body: it walked away from it. Taking the decision to no longer pay into the fund that maintains the regulator, the Express turned its back on the regulator. As a result, according to the then head of the PCC, the newspaper would:
…not now be able to demonstrate to their readers that they are committed to adhere to the set of standards which are independently enforced by the commission.
Identifying a flaw in a regulatory system that newspapers can opt in and out of does not mean that you support a system of state regulation of the media. It simply means that this particularly system is not fit for purpose and needs to be overhauled. Indeed, this particular scenario underlines the strength of Hacked Off’s argument for an independent regulation of the press backed by law.
The Free Speech Network certainly do not seem to grasp the problems associated with a solely voluntary regulatory framework. In a debate last Thursday launching the campaign, it was clear that they have no real answers in terms of imposing sanctions on a newspaper that decides (as the Express did) not to comply. As Steve Barnett (Hacked Off Board Director) pointed out to Tim Luckhurst (a key supporter of the Free Speech Network) during one exchange:
You can have an authoritarian Government at any time which will impose censorship. I mean, let’s be realistic about this. If you are talking about how a contract works – Richard Desmond, if he does not like the fine that is imposed on him through a contract that he’s signed, he will go to court and he will litigate and he will say, “You don’t have the authority, I challenge this,” and even if he loses, it will be two years down the line. That’s one problem…
Luckhurst: Well then let’s hope it’s never. Because the danger… the danger…
Barnett: The danger is that what you find completely unacceptable, Tim, you’ve said yourself, totally unacceptable, will happen again. I’m afraid you haven’t answered John’s (Humphrys) question. What is to prevent everyone just walking away from this?
The answer is, of course, nothing.
But such obvious observations do not deter those behind the Free Speech Network who often appear to employ bizarre arguments to defend their position. Whilst on the one hand proclaiming that state regulation would severely restrict the press, some supporters argue in parallel that they wouldn’t have any impact at all. Michael Grade, a PCC member (laughably, the PCC claim on their website that “a majority of [members] have no connection with the press – ensuring that the PCC is independent of the newspaper industry” – Grade is listed as a ‘public member’ which is, of course, factual but also odd), claimed in the Daily Mail that tough regulations would have no effect:
He said pictures of the Duchess were first published in France, ‘the country cited as having the model of strict privacy legislation’, but the rules were ‘ignored’ by an editor who could offset any court penalty with increased circulation revenues.
The photographs were then published in Ireland, which Lord Grade said had a system regarded as the possible model for the UK.
Commentary, incidentally, that the Free Speech Network were keen to share via Twitter. So, increased regulation will simultaneously bring about the destruction of our democracy and have no impact whatsoever. Which rather begs the question, why are they making such a fuss? Perhaps they hope that by exaggerating the impact of Leveson they can ensure the status quo or, worse, a similarly watered down alternative. They are right, of course, to argue against state regulation of the press, but it is no use pretending all is rosy in the garden. The system needs an overhaul, it would serve the Free Speech Network well if they worked with campaigns such as Hacked Off to build an alternative regulatory framework, rather than dismissing them as advocates of a system that will greatly weaken our democracy.