If we want press freedom fit for a 21st century democracy, we cannot take it for granted

Our Deputy Managing Editor on the international pressures on regulation

Share
Related Topics

With David Cameron ramping up the debate on Britain's place in Europe, recent reports that a high level European Union working group was making noises about various aspects of press regulation were duly regarded in some quarters as symptomatic of the EU's propensity for meddling.

It is by no means clear that press regulation is an area in which member states' competence could - or would - be conferred to the European level. Then again, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg already deals with questions of media law and it is not hard to see why Brussels might want a piece of the action. Press regulation is, after all, a subject on which almost everyone seems keen to express a view.

The British compact

There is no suggestion - at this stage - that the European Commission is seeking to harmonise the varied models of press regulation that currently exist around the continent, although the wider debate about regulating the internet inevitably has a cross-border feel. Yet it was interesting that the report of the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism should make a point both of highlighting the importance of the Leveson Inquiry and of criticising 'some politicians in high office' for allegedly rejecting Lord Justice Leveson's proposals.

Notwithstanding that this criticism apparently misunderstands the relationship between politicians and judicial inquiries, it nonetheless says a lot about the way in which events in Britain - and the actions of our media and government - can have repercussions elsewhere. The amendments to the defamation bill that were carried in the House of Lords yesterday might perhaps have been noted with a greater degree of approval by those fond of legislators who grab bulls by horns.

Whether it is a consequence of colonial shame or simply cynicism about the merits of our 'establishment', there is a tendency in Britain to baulk at the idea that our institutions are models to the rest of the world. Yet the fact is that this country's democratic foundations - including its press freedoms - are widely admired in places where democracy and free speech are more limited. Expenses scandals and occasionally putrid papers might have dimmed that appreciation but the fact that such scandals have been exposed and scrutinised can just as equally be held up to show that the UK's 'constitutional' compact between parliament, people and press remains strong.

For the most part we take our freedoms for granted. But there are plenty of governments elsewhere which are founded largely on corruption rather than democratic process and which do all they can to avoid scrutiny by the media or indeed by voters. And the corrupt and repressive are as keen to use Britain as an exemplar when it suits their purposes as those who campaign for fair elections and an unrestricted fourth estate.

Some years ago, when I worked at the Press Complaints Commission (and yes, I can take on the chin any amount of flak about the PCC), I was contacted by the Foreign Office, which was following up reports from the British Embassy in Nairobi that the Kenyan parliament was planning to establish a government-appointed press council. The Embassy had been surprised that one of the stated justifications for the measure was that it followed the British model and therefore must be alright. It didn't, of course, and wasn't alright from the point of view of Kenya's independent media.

Before its eventual repeal in 2009, the retention of criminal defamation on British statute books was often cited by less savoury regimes as proof that similar laws of their own were acceptable. The only difference was that, unlike here, they were regularly in use, handy for locking up overly-nosy or critical journalists.

Beyond our shores

A couple of weeks after the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry I was invited to run a series of seminars about media ethics and self-regulation in Georgia by a network of enlightened and independent journalists, editors and publishers. During my stay I was asked to speak to a group of aspiring reporters and writers, to whom I talked about the horrors that had led to Leveson and the calls for stricter regulation. A member of the audience shook his head ruefully: “If your country introduces tougher controls, our President will immediately use it as an excuse to clamp down on our media too.”

Government policy in Britain clearly cannot be determined by reference to how it might impact on other countries, rather than by a proper examination of needs at home. And after all, public dismay at phone-hacking and other media excesses rightly demands a response to restore confidence in the press and its regulation. Nevertheless, it is equally wrong to believe that British policy-making happens in a vacuum; and that campaigners and governments elsewhere do not use (or abuse) Britain's example either to promote democratic development or to resist it.

The recent report by the EU's High Level Group is a reminder in the interminable Leveson debate that whatever new system of press regulation we end up with (and after David Puttnam's intervention in the Lords yesterday that is arguably less clear than ever), eyes beyond our shores will be watching keenly. For this reason, it is essential not only that the new system maintains press freedom - while demanding responsibility - but also that its presentation to the wider world leaves no room for doubt as to its positive intentions.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of the Independent titles and London Evening Standard

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore