by Angela Phillips
A delegation from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) arrived in the UK this week to investigate “The British Government’s actions relating to newspaper regulation and the handling of state surveillance.”
At a briefing session organised by the LSE on Wednesday, it swiftly became clear that the delegates had been badly misinformed about the debate, both by press reports and by their earlier meeting with Lords Hunt and Black of IPSO (the new press complaints organisation which is to be established to replace the PCC). Delegation members reacted with astonishment when, one by one, invited members of civil society organisations and academics, explained that the proposals for regulation embedded in the Royal Charter were not aimed at stifling the press and would in fact provide greater freedom for investigative journalists by significantly lowering the costs of defending a libel case.
In a packed seminar room, only the chair and two of those invited to brief the delegation opposed the new proposals and in each case their objections were to the principle of legal underpinning. They were unable to pin-point a single clause of the arrangements that would in fact be capable of undermining investigative journalism in the UK.
The Scandinavian delegates were particularly surprised to discover that IPSO’s ‘independent’ alternative allows for no separate membership for ordinary journalists. They had assumed that any body seeking to self-regulate the news media would involve a balance of members representing employers and unions. They had not grasped the fact that IPSO would simply represent the interests of the most commercial of the news companies and is in fact merely a means of protecting their business interests.
The major concern of delegates was not to find out exactly what the UK needs to protect journalism and press freedom in this country, but to ensure that we do nothing that might be interpreted abroad as an attack on the freedom of the press. A delegate from Pakistan was very concerned that any attempt to regulate the press in the UK would be seen by his Government as an excuse to stifle the press in his country.
This is the argument that those opposing the Leveson reforms have used on a number of occasions. As long as the account of the debate that is heard abroad is entirely shaped by those news organisations in this country that oppose the reforms, it is hardly surprising that the message that is getting out has been distorted. The one-sided coverage of the attempts to reform the press is a telling symptom of the major problem – when freedom of expression is in fact controlled by large corporations bent on protecting their corporate interests, in what way can it be described as free?