Free Press

Is Press Freedom Fading Away Around the World?

"Regulating" the press has become a popular activity in many traditionally free-ish countries


Printing press

Is America the free press's last stand? It can feel that way when you look around the world. English-speaking countries and Europe have traditionally been relative bastions for independent media in a world where political leaders have little tolerance for dissent, but Britain is on the verge of adopting explicit state regulation of the press and the European Union and Australia seem poised to follow. That's especially frightening when you consider that many European nations currently rank above the United States in terms of press freedom—but their collective advantage could be wiped away in a single legislative moment.

The British press has, traditionally, been … spunky. That means that U.K. journalists put their U.S. counterparts to shame when scrutinizing government officials and other public figures, but that can also translate into a cavalier attitude toward the boundaries of propriety when pursuing a story. Specifically, the News of the World, an old and widely read newspaper and part of Rupert Murdoch's press empire, was caught "phone hacking"—breaking into private voicemail messages—with the assistance of friendly police officials. Looking for scoops, reporters gained easy access to personal lives, including that of a murder victim, and military personnel killed in action. In the fallout, the newspaper was shut down. Nasty stuff, for sure, and seemingly settled by the closure of a large publication, unless you have a coterie of offended snooping victims, privacy-shy celebrities, and a clacque of authoritarian radicals looking for an opening to impose state control on the press. Those constituencies came together in Hacked Off, a lobby group for press regulation. And Hacked Off was able to leverage the scandal into an inquiry led by Sir Brian Henry Leveson, a jurist more than happy to deliver a recommendation that the British government institute formal regulation of the press.

Leveson report

That regulation, the implementation of which is still under hot and heavy debate in the U.K., would likely take the form of a government body with the power to set standards for the press, order the media to issue apologies and corrections, and impose fines. Newspapers and magazines wouldn't be forced to subject themselves to regulation, but those that opted out would suffer escalated damages if they were sued for such matters as libel or breach of privacy, and lost, in the government's courts.

Note that the U.K. is already notorious for the ease with which prominent people, in particular, can sue people who say inconvenient things about them.

As the U.K.-based Index on Censorship warns:

The media has a vital role to play — as Leveson himself indicated — in monitoring and reporting the political scene, challenging and criticising and holding to account those in power; if journalists cannot do this robustly and without fear of interference or other political consequences, press freedom is constrained. Beyond this, even "light" statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

Britain being Britain, precipitating factors are required before the country contemplates jettisoning hard-won liberties. The European Union, on the other hand, just spits Orwelllian crap out, seemingly on a whim. At least, there doesn't seem to be any particular reason the European Commission's High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism coughed up a report, A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy, praising the free press as a necessity for democratic nations—such a necessity, that is, that each member of the European Union should have an independent media council, empowered to maintain that freedom by upholding "European values" and "the public function of the media."

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.

If you're scratching your head and wondering what "removal of journalistic status" could possibly mean, you're not alone. But "journalistic status" implies something formal that can be taken away, which suggests permission from the state, which almost certainly means occupational licensing. So, the European Union apparently wants journalists to seek the nod to practice their craft from the government officials they're supposed to scrutinize.

Rather more politely than might be necessary, the Index on Censorship points out:

But how could — or should — any regulator determine who can write for a newspaper, post a blog or make a radio programme or podcast? And how to stop someone exercising their right to ask questions, analyse politics, or write opinions? To attempt to do so would be futile as well as foolhardy. Are journalists to have less right to free expression than ordinary citizens?

European Commission

The European Commission move seemed to catch Britain off-guard, which may have been deliberate. The European report pointed to the fact that there was actual debate over the Leveson recommendations as grounds for the EU to step in, saying "this resistance by itself underscores the urgent need for supervisory bodies that can and do act, instead of being supervisory in name only."

The High-Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism report is no small matter considering how many nations are potentially affected should its recommendations be implemented across the not- quite-a-super-state. Even if you raise an eyebrow at Reporters Sans Frontieres's ranking (PDF) of the United States as 32nd in press freedom, it's difficult to object to the group's observation that "After a serious decline in civil liberties during the eight-year Bush administration, Barack Obama's election as president raised many hopes that were quickly dashed." Notable, also, is how many European Union members gain high ranks in RSF's ratings: Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Austria—all rank above the United States at present. It's impossible to see even an EU-tilting organization continuing those high marks under a regime like that proposed by European Commission group with the improbable name, with government councils somehow empowered to yank "journalistic status." That would be 27 countries gathering up their media under state dominance, all at once.

Even in the English-speaking world, the infection spreads. Last year, Australia's Finkelstein Inquiry actually beat Leveson to the punch, recommending a "News Media Council" that would set standards for the press and punish those who strayed from the fold. The Finkelstein Inquiry, like the Leveson Inquiry, was nominally inspired by the News of the World scandal. But Finkelstein's team was a bit more open about the political implications of its efforts. Referring to the "origins of the inquiry," the report says:

Concern was also expressed by several politicians and others that certain of News Limited's papers (The Australian and the Daily Telegraph) were biased in their reporting on particular issues. Climate change and the National Broadband Network were given as examples

Note that The Australian and the Daily Telegraph are both conservative-leaning newspapers, and a bit of a thorn in the side for the current Labor government of that country.

Leveson's team may have been more discreet than Finkelstein's. But parliamentary debate still rages hot and heavy in Britain. Meg Hillier, a Labour MP (yes, Australia and Britain spell "labor" differently), spilled the beans on the rush to censorship. Reports the Press Gazette:

Labour MP and former journalist Meg Hillier has warned that some politicians may back statutory regulation as revenge for the expenses scandal.

The former junior minister told Press Gazette she does not support the statutory underpinning being called for by her party. She also revealed the extent to which statute may be used as a form of vengeance by describing how one non-Labour MP recently told her that one "storm in a teacup" story had changed their view on regulation. …

"That shows you that the psychology exists in the pack of (not all of the) 650 MPs… that there can be a desire to use the powers that are there to bad effect."

America's press may be a tad tame and cosy with power, and we may rank all of 32nd in press freedom rankings, but there's no serious push in this country to subject the press to direct government control. Fortunately, we still have some company in this regard. Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and other countries continue to rank well, in RSF's estimation, and won't be subject to any of the proposed regulatory schemes. But honestly, it's starting to feel a bit lonely out here in the free speech wilderness.

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  1. Considering that the so-called “free press”, even allegedly counter-cultural publications such as Reason, are largely advocates of elite perspective, if not always specific policy, what difference does it make? They’re already a satrop of the liberal/progressive estate.

    If the press were actually in danger of taking a jackboot to the face, it’d be an applause-worthy event. It’s not like it’s doing us much good now.

    1. So what you’re saying is you don’t like what other people say (even if I agree), so restricting their freedom is a good thing.

      You’re an idiot

      1. No, I think his point is that most media already prints what the government’s ruling classes want, so what’s the difference?

        1. That would be how I read it.

          1. It’d be nice if it could be understood as-posted, wouldn’t it?

        2. No, I think his point is that most media already prints what the government’s ruling classes want, so what’s the difference?

          Assuming this is true, does this justify suppressing the minority that do *not* print what the government’s ruling classes want?

          1. “does this justify suppressing the minority that do *not* print what the government’s ruling classes want?”

            That point was never made. The original comment was one of indifference.

    2. Even if one accepts the position (which I think can be defended) that the Press as it exists is largely the lapdog of Vested Interests, granting the State more authority to censor is a lousy idea. As matters stand, if we don’t like what is being put out by the Media, we can obtain our own venues and print what WE want to see. Let the State censor the existing press, and all hope of getting other messages out gets much more distant.

  2. Of course not. They are equally free to support the same statist/collectivist narrative.

    1. Come on now, the United States media is more controlled than anywhere else. 3 corporations own 90% of the media. Money is their only interest. The Internet is the only salvation of truth! I mean, there’s a reason you see all these shootings in the news, anything that furthers the federal agenda is pushed through the media as hard as they can push it. I mean just look at the gun control debate. Anyone who actually puts up a legitimate, non biased argument is filtered out, anyone who supports the gun control or anything that might scare more people into thinking they should go with gun control is blasted on every channel. Than cases that would hurt them, like DEA raids gone wrong, the fact that Chicago has the highest murder rate in the nation and the most strict gun control laws… We live in an ever increasing police state that severely threatens each and every one of us down to our core existence. The media is not free, as the same people that own it own the banks, the most stock in the federal government, own the failed central banking system.. When a reporter wants to stand up and say enough is enough, they get thrown out like trash. Evidence of this can be seen by the reporters who did the story on Monsanto, who, guess what, ARE OWNED BY THE SAME PEOPLE! It’s all about the investors in this corrupt broken system. NO ONE IS FREE ANYMORE.

  3. Freedom of the press isn’t like climbing a mountain. Once it’s accomplished it’s off to climb other mountains. It’s an on-going struggle and always will be.

    Besides, if the traditional media’s gradually being brought under state control – a conclusion which I don’t believe is warranted – recent events suggest newer information dissemination technologies are more then capable of taking their place.

    Love it or hate it the “Arab Spring” has brought down several dictators and autocrats and that wasn’t as a result of traditional media.

    1. allen| 2.6.13 @ 6:11PM |#
      …”Besides, if the traditional media’s gradually being brought under state control – a conclusion which I don’t believe is warranted – recent events suggest newer information dissemination technologies are more then capable of taking their place.”…

      Disagreed with your first statement, as the Brit “press” and others are coming under some control or other for the first time.
      But agreed with your second point; governments are regulating buggy whips at exactly the time when people are starting to push on the gas pedal.
      I still read a dead-tree edition of the local paper with the morning coffee, but more for amusement than edification now. The web is where the news comes from, and even the Chicoms aren’t capable of real control over that.
      The Norks, certainly, but that’s a result of a government thuggish enough to satisfy shithead.

  4. Obama has said that giving equal weight to both sides of an argument is wrong when one side is obviously wrong. I guess he means Fox News. I forget the actual quote. The liberal basis for shutting down FNC, talk radio is that it’s like yelling fire in a crowded theater. That famous quote by Holmes arose out of a Supreme court decision restricting war protesting in which the court held that the government can restrict speech in a time of war — so let no liberal ever use that quote again. But really, all these big government fools are bringing us closer to the promised land, the land of communism, the land of death and despair.

    1. FNC is free to say whatever they want. The problem I personally have with FNC though is that they can go off the deep end in terms of crazy.

      The only people I like on Fox these days is Stossel and O’Reilly on occasion.

      1. “off the deep end in terms of crazy.”
        For example?
        I regularly hear people say this without a single example. Hey, maybe I’m just dull-witted but beyond the normal pov bias I don’t get them being “crazy”.

      2. They appear off the deep end if you watch John Stewart, MSNBC which quotes the parts where they are off. Overall, they’re more sane than MSNBC and in my opinion CNN, and they at least have people with opposing viewpoints on the shows, even if the host never agrees with them. Stossel is good, but so is Hannity (although I tend to agree with 100% of the former and 75% of the latter). The media bias sections are on the mark.

        1. but so is Hannity

          Son, I am disappoint.

          1. You forgot this.


    2. That famous quote by Holmes arose out of a Supreme court decision restricting war protesting in which the court held that the government can restrict speech in a time of war –

      But we’re perpetually at war. War on poverty, War on drugs, drone war…

      1. Thanks to the NDAA the entirety of the United States is consider a “battle zone” so we are at we, a war with the government. One we have only one chance to win.

  5. The only place true freedom of the press is practiced these days is on the Internet.

    1. I’d amend that to:
      The only place governments *can’t* limit speech is the internet.
      “The press” is, in each case, an editorial office and an printing plant; people work there and people can get fined, arrested or, finally, killed (that’s how governments work).

      1. Can’t limit? That’s why more that 1,000,000 sites have been taken down that have different views, that contradict the federal agenda right? That’s why Facebook stocks are primarily owned by the US government. That’s why content is filtered every day. Can’t limit? That’s a joke.

  6. There is a dude that clearly knows what time it is. WOw.

  7. Specifically, the News of the World, an old and widely read newspaper and part of Rupert Murdoch’s press empire, was caught “phone hacking”?breaking into private voicemail messages?with the assistance of friendly police officials.

    And so Great Britain wants to put the news under the careful scrutiny of their co-conspirators.

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  9. They need to work on marketing this properly. Make it all about regulating assault hate speech. Or something.

  10. Not sure if this is apropos, but I get more out of blog/forum responses than anywhere else these days. Since most traditional media reporting has become completely point of view biased, blogs at least serve the purpose of supplying a multitude of views – while also pointing to other fact sources and underlaying theory. For example, if not for the Reason blogs I’d never have discovered Bastiat. And if it not for finding Bastiat, then I’d not be able to interpret most socialist economic spin – except through my old Republican ideals which were essentially exchanging one faulty train of logic for another.

    So while I am unequivocally opposed to more regulation and the unabashed power grab the article pointed out, what I fear even more is further control of the internet by all governments, which will lead to the most important speech I’m hearing – from individuals free of any influence say their own good or bad ideas.

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  12. The only media in the US that the gov wants to regulate is talk radio and internet, the mainstream media already is nothing more than the democrat party mouthpiece. Notice when they they talk about gun control they leave Switzerland out of reports, which proves guns are not the problem. Another example of non reporting is on so called “climate change” which was once called “global warming”. They leave out that East Anglican University fudged the data or just ignored data that didn’t conform to their ideology. The news in the USA is a joke, but not a funny one

    1. You make my point more precisely. I find mainstream media of little value these days. When I relied on the mainstream media, I was left with what so many around here call false choices. What I personally find high value on the internet puts my newly calibrated ethics in opposition to most mainstream reporting POV. Maybe 1+1 does not equal 2 in this case, but it seems this third point of view I’ve discovered is what they wish to regulate? Paranoia.

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