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Is self-regulation of the Press drawing to an end?

By news editor, on 30 November 2012

Written by Daniel Bowman, UCL Union Debating Society committee member.

On Monday 26th November 2012 the UCL Union Debating Society hosted a debate on the subject ‘This House Believes that the press can no longer be trusted to self regulate’.

On the panel were some of the most active and distinguished participants in the wider public debate.

Speaking against press self-regulation were the Labour MP Chris Bryant, Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration, Jacqui Hames, former detective and presenter of Crimewatch, and Mark Lewis, the media lawyer, who has represented many victims of phone-hacking, including the Dowler family.

Speaking in defence of a system of press self-regulation were Neil Wallis, the former News of the World deputy editor, Conservative MP John Whittingdale, Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and Toby Young, the journalist and author.

All of the speakers agreed that unjustifiable practices have proliferated within sections of the press, and that the Press Complaints Committee, the current self-regulating body, has failed.

Jacqui Hames emphasised the existence of a “culture of bullying, exploitation and malpractice, supposedly in the interest of the free press”. She talked about her own experiences of being put under surveillance and tampering of her mail by certain newspapers.

Neil Wallis accepted that behaviour such as this, and alleged hacking of the phones of Milly Dowler and the victims of Soham was “unconscionable”, but not a reason to shackle the press with new legislation.

The real area of contention was whether, in the light of press malpractices, a new independent regulatory body requires legislation by the government in order to have the necessary authority.

No-one advocated the status quo. The opposition side were advocating a proposal put forward by Lord Hunt and Lord Black, whereby all the UK newspapers will join up (on a five-year, rolling basis) to a new independent regulator with increased powers to bring heavy fines on newspapers.

The proposition side argued for a similar body, but one that the government would put into existence and that the newspapers would, by law, be required to sign up to.

Chris Bryant MP

Chris Bryant MP

For the opposition, this would set a dangerous precedent, as they argued that once the statute is passed politicians could, in the longer term, enact changes and subvert the regulator to their advantage.

Toby Young stated that a free press is “the liberty on which all other liberties rest”, as it keeps authorities in check. He argued that a body underpinned by government legislation would be liable to “soft political control” and could eventually become a quasi-political quango.

He proposed that existing criminal and civil laws need to be better enforced, and an authorities regulator set up without government legislation.

John Whittingdale, while forthright in his condemnation of press malpractices, similarly highlighted the “insidious process” that could culminate in the press being afraid of publishing politicians’ misdemeanors.

Thus, likewise, he supports a stronger system of non-statutory regulation, as “the alternatives could be much worse”.

The proposition side countered this argument with two main points. The first was that the press has been given “one last chance” many times before.

Mark Lewis quoted the former Conservative politician David Mellor’s 1991 warning that the press was “drinking in the last-chance saloon”.

Chris Bryant stressed that if a new body is not set in place by the government, once again, the newspapers and their proprietors will breath a sigh of relief. He claimed that “self regulation doesn’t work”, citing MPs and the expenses scandal as an example.

The proposition side, as a whole, argued that the government needs to put in place a stronger regulatory body, independent from both state and newspaper proprietor interference.

The debate was incredibly passionate, to the extent that, at times, tempers flared and intelligent discussion left the room.

Between the speakers there were insults, highlighting of alleged criminal conduct and alleged fees taken, and even accusations of racism!

Although it should be said that all of the speakers went to the bar after the debate and no fights broke out.

This is a drawback of hosting a debate as opposed to a discussion, as it sets the two sides in a binary format seeking the audience’s approval, when some form of compromise may be reached.

Having said that, it is a great way to provide a platform for passionate people to talk about the ideas they care about in front of a critical audience. It was a great privilege to host such an esteemed panel at UCL on such a critical issue which is now reaching its climax with the publication of the Leveson Report.

In a very close result, 61 voted for the motion, 53 against, and 22 abstained.  Judge Leveson has recommended that an independent body be set up with statutory underpinning.

Judging by the eloquence and passion on both sides of this debate, the government has a very difficult decision to make.

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