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.
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?
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.