Statutory regulation a ‘very slippery slope’ for Britain’s free press

With the Leveson Inquiry findings imminent, Peter Preston, a former editor of the Guardian, has claimed that statutory regulation of the press would be a ‘very slippery slope’ to political interference in Britain’s media.

newspaper-photo-1Speaking at a special lecture at St John’s College in Durham, Mr Preston expressed fears of the consequences for the British press if it were to become subject to a regulatory body backed by statute.

He claimed that such regulation would endanger free editorial judgement and would give politicians the power to change any regulatory code in future to suit their own interests.

Instead he advocated an ‘upgraded’ Press and Complaints Commission (PCC), a body he helped to set-up, which would have an investigatory arm, a whistle-blowing hotline and powers to impose fines for transgressions. Mr Preston said that such an idea had wide support in the British press.

Mr Preston illustrated his point with reference to the BBC, arguing that too strong legal oversight could lead to the suppression of important news stories.

He cited the MPs’ expenses scandal and the phone-hacking scandal, the two biggest public interest stories of recent times, as instances where the BBC could not have broken either story because each required paying a middleman a fee to obtain crucial, confidential information. Mr Preston feared that similar future journalistic discoveries would be endangered in a world of overbearing statutory regulation.

Mr Preston also used the lecture to question the proportionality of the Leveson Inquiry. Without doubting the gravity of the offence of phone-hacking, he wondered whether an 18 month inquiry into the practice and wider press culture was an appropriate reaction to the situation.

In the same vein he criticised what he saw as a culture of knee-jerk responses to crises in British public life. He said that greater use of common sense, and not the passing of regulatory laws, was the solution to restoring faith in Britain’s public institutions.

And giving his prediction on the expected fallout of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, Mr Preston said that politicians would most likely ‘thrash out a consensus’ on reform before presenting it to the press for negotiation. He predicted that this consensus would not match exactly the Leveson formula but the politicians would eventually ‘cook up’ something that ‘may or may not be good.’

Lord Justice Leveson is expected to present his findings in the coming days. Further information on the Leveson Inquiry can be found at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk.

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 20th November 2012 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=30324

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