/ 15 July 2011

When press freedom faces the void

It was the last big British press crisis: in 1990 journalists from the Sunday Sport sneaked into the hospital bedroom of the gravely injured actor Gordon Kaye and snapped away.

Cue outrage. A government appointed committee wanted the old Press Council scrapped and a new Press Complaints Commission established. If it wasn’t up and working effectively within 18 months, a statutory tribunal — able to license, ban and injunct — would take its place. As editor of the Guardian, I was close to the action.

Harry Roche, the Guardian group chief executive, was persuaded to try to raise the millions needed to make possible the transition to a new commission. I was constantly up and down the stairs to the management floor.

What’s the point of self-regulation regimes? To ward off something worse — in this case, Downing Street and its associates moving, through new laws, to nobble reporters making waves. Who fears new laws against privacy most keenly? The red-tops (low-end) and the middle-market tabloids, which see much of their business at stake. That’s why Daily Mail editor David English and — yes! — Rupert Murdoch were influential behind the scenes in pushing the commission into life.

Why was the Guardian involved then? Because we understood, from often bitter experience, that there is not one law for the tabloids and another for the rest. Press freedom around the world is too often snuffed out by government appointed “press councils”.

But did “the industry” agree? One end — the Financial Times end — wasn’t very enthusiastic about helping the other, represented by the Daily Star. The Mirror didn’t like anything backed by the Sun, and vice versa. The regional press blamed the nationals. Magazine publishers moaned. Consensus was, and remains, fragile.

But by the start of 1991 the commission was up and running. It had no lawyers around the table because it wanted to deal with complaints fast and cheaply. It didn’t have fines and penal injunctions. In a wholly imperfect world it worked as well as could rationally be expected. David Cameron was defending its achievements only two months ago. Now, in a switch Robert Mugabe might envy, he pronounces it dead. Forget press freedom when No 10 panics.

Will it be any easier, this time around, to decide on successor regulation? No, it will be much more difficult. Big movers and shakers — from the Mail to Murdoch — are hors de combat. The digital revolution peddling true freedom of information ploughs on. Even loftier journalists who’ve derided the commission, such as those who’ve betrayed it, haven’t thought through what comes after.

But, from the Caribbean to the Balkans and Southern Africa, all those countries that have built press self-regulation on our model will be worrying. Is a freedom so toiled after and fought for something that can be tossed away? Watch this space: and fear the void. —