Civil Liberties

Europe's Eroding Press Freedom


Britain, last year, let a bunch of long-time, would-be control freaks exploit a scandal about press (and police) conduct to impose an inquisition into the news media under the guidance of an authoritarian aristocrat. The predictable result of the Leveson Inquiry was a call for government regulation of the press, with Prime Minister David Cameron in the unlikely role of somewhat principled delayer of a rush to censorship. But even before our friends across the pond hash out what this all means in application, and how tightly the leash on journalists should be held, a leading participant in the Leveson Inquiry already suggests the effort didn't go far enough, and maybe they should think about curbs on this whole Internet thing. And quick thinkers across the Channel are way ahead of the game, calling for tight, Europe-wide regulation of the media in all forms.

Robert Jay, the lead counsel for the Leveson Inquiry, traveled to that free-speech sanctuary known as Singapore to dispel rumors that he and his colleagues were blessedly ignorant of the existence of the online world. According to the Times of London:

Internet service providers could be sued for allowing their customers to read defamatory comments online, under a new law proposed by the lead counsel to the Leveson inquiry.

Robert Jay, QC, who led the questioning of key witnesses including David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch, has suggested a solution for regulating the internet after Lord Justice Leveson largely ducked the issue in his 2,000-page report.

Acknowledging that he was "entering a hornets' nest that Lord Justice Leveson wisely avoided", Mr Jay said that increasingly imaginative solutions were needed to make dissemination of defamatory content online subject to civil law.

In a speech to the Singapore Academy of Law, he said: "One possible way forward is to seek by statutory provision to bring ISPs (internet service providers) within the scope of publishers for the purposes of the law of defamation, even if provision would need to be made for resultant claims to be served out of the jurisdiction."

Anybody who has ever had a run-in with the UK's rather interesting and celebrity-friendly laws of libel and defamation understand that this might be a tad … problematic. Read "problematic" as yet another huge poke in the eye for free speech within British jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, the European Commission's High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism (Orwell wasn't secretly Belgian, was he?) has issued its final report, A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy. The document insists "a fair legal regulation is necessary, balancing the new dimension of freedom of expression and the justified rights and interests of other citizens."

The document includes some nice reassurances about press freedom, but always within the context of "European values" and "the public function of the media." The document then goes on to recommend such gems as:

To ensure that all media organisations follow clearly identifiable codes of conduct and editorial lines, and apply the principles of editorial independence, it should be mandatory for them to make them publicly available, including by publication on their website.


All EU countries should have independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership. Nominations to them should be transparent, with built-in checks and balances. Such bodies would have competences to investigate complaints, much like a media ombudsman, but would also check that media organisations have published a code of conduct and have revealed ownership details, declarations of conflicts of interest, etc. Media councils should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status. The national media councils should follow a set of European-wide standards and be monitored by the Commission to ensure that they comply with European values.

Note that "removal of journalistic status" would seem to require licensing of journalists so that they would then have something that let them do their jobs that could be stripped from them by those media councils. That would be among the "real enforcement powers" that media councils could wield against journalists and media entities that piss them off by violating standards and values as defined by bureaucrats.

Overall, it would seem to be a really good time to start writing an elegy for European press freedom — or at least for media outfits on the other side of the Atlantic to consider moving their Web servers to the United States.