LONDON—The idea of “regulating” the news media plays quite differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S. it’s unthinkable: Press regulation of any sort would inevitably trample sacred freedoms and unleash state apparatchiks to badger and stifle the media.
But in Britain the notion that news media need grownup supervision is widely held and periodically attempted. Since the early 1950s, under perpetual threat that Parliament might act, the news industry has created voluntary entities to handle complaints and offer redress for people who were slimed, bullied, or otherwise, as they say here, rubbished.
Self-regulation hasn’t worked so well. The current cop, the Press Complaints Commission, was hatched 20 years ago after a rash of press abuses in the late ‘80s. A minister admonished the media then they were “drinking in the last-chance saloon” and further misconduct would bring new laws.
So to today’s phone-hacking scandal, universally cited as the spawn of toothless self-regulation. The scandal’s initial focus was on years of surveillance and bribery by Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid.
In its wake came arrests and Parliamentary hearings into broader practices among Britain’s hypercompetitive press, led by 10 dailies—with another half-dozen titles on Sundays—all vying for a national market and “fighting like ferrets in a sack for readers and for survival,” as London journalism professor Steven Barnett put it in a recent paper for the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual conference in Copenhagen.
What, if anything, should be done may depend now on the recommendations of a senior judge, Sir Brian Leveson, appointed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to lead a sweeping inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the press.”
The Leveson Inquiry opened in July and uncorked a flood of tales from Continue reading