What is the future of press regulation? Civil society can help work out the answerOriginal
14 Oct 2011
The first evidence sessions of the Leveson Inquiry – and the reactions to these – have certainly reignited the public debate about the future of press regulation. Unfortunately however, this debate is already threatening to become deeply polarised.
On one side there are those who are pushing for a tough new regulatory framework, while on the other are those who argue that regulation threatens to undermine the freedom of the press and democracy.
The critical link between a free press and democracy cannot be disputed. The press have a vital role to play in monitoring and scrutinising those in positions of power, and holding them to account for their actions. The annual Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranked UK 19th out of 178 countries for press freedom in 2010 – just ahead of the US. A simple measure of success for any new system of regulation should be that it must not impact negatively upon the UK’s global ranking for press freedom.
However, Lord Leveson and his team have been explicitly charged with designing 'a more effective policy and regulatory regime'. Changes are inevitable and public confidence in the system, following the phone hacking crisis, must be restored.
But how do we break beyond the narrow parameters of the current discourse, and come up with a viable set of solutions which have the support of the politicians, the industry and the public?
Given the intrinsic link between freedom of the press and democracy we should be clear that this not just a question for Lord Leveson and his team. This is something that all of us must consider. The issue of whether and how restrictions might be placed upon freedom of expression is of tremendous importance to how we define ourselves as a society – and therefore we all have a role to play in working out what we want to be done.
There are some challenging and complex questions which must be addressed. For example, what are the benefits and drawbacks of statutory approaches to regulation? How should citizens be involved in any new regulation system? To what extent should digital content be included within any new framework? What are the pros and cons of different models for funding any new regulatory regime?
These are important questions, and finding the right answers will not be easy. But we are much more likely to come up with these solutions if many different individuals and interest groups get involved with the discussion and have a serious and meaningful debate about the best way forward. This means putting aside preconceived ideas and personal grievances, avoiding entrenched positions and looking at the issues objectively and openly.
Civil society has a particularly important role to play here. It can help to organise and empower different interest groups, and is an essential complement to and influence upon the more formal institutions of democracy. In 2010 the Carnegie UK Trust published Making Good Society, the final report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. In this report the Trust argued that the links between the media and civil society organisations need to be significantly strengthened – with more freedom for civil society to engage with the media and shape content, and greater pluralism to ensure that the media is controlled by a broader range of different interests and groups. And given the significant democratic implications of the current debate about press regulation it seems entirely logical that civil society should be at the heart of this crucial discussion.
The onus is therefore on civil society groups and organisations to think about the complex issues involved, and engage with both the Leveson Inquiry and the various other processes that have been set up to look at this issue. And those involved in these inquiries must take a proactive approach to seeking out contributions from across civil society, and ensure that their engagement is as pluralistic and wide-ranging as possible.
This means reaching out to groups who may not immediately be seen as having an interest in the issue of press regulation, but who have energy, expertise and a range of different perspectives to offer. For example, organisations representing the voluntary sector, youth organisations, older people’s charities, social entrepreneurs, academic institutions, community groups and many others can all make a valuable contribution to the debate.
The issue is not so much about which groups should get involved – but the need for lots of different groups to get involved, and for these groups to think about the complex issues within this debate seriously, properly and fairly to help identify a way forward.
If this is done then not only will it be a great example of democracy in action, but the result will hopefully be a new regulatory framework which supports and enhances democracy and which achieves the crucial balance that we need.
Douglas White is a senior policy officer at the Carnegie UK Trust.
To support civil society organisations participate in the debate, the Carnegie UK Trust has published a discussion paper. Regulation of the Press – Nine Key Questions for Civil Society is available on the Carnegie UK Trust website.