Debate | Taking Liberties – Should the Press be Regulated?

Historically, journalism has been cited as a force for good. It is often suggested that the watchful eye of the press force our politicians, public figures and other organisations to behave in a conduct that is ethically acceptable and morally right. However, in recent years, journalistic practice itself has been criticised and the notion that journalism is consistently a force for good has been severely questioned. In the wake of the current Ralph Miliband Daily Mail scandal, the debate about press regulation has once again been ignited. LS debate asks, should the press be regulated?


Indranil Chaudhury

Third Year Classical Civilisation

I would like to state from the outset that I am not usually in favor of any government regulation of the press and would find such a thing to be an abhorrent form of censorship. This just isn’t the aim of journalism at all. Among other roles, the British press has a venerable reputation for its high standards of investigative journalism and an important role in holding public figures and organisations to account. Stories such as the MPs expenses scandal, corruption in FIFA and the NOS surveillance scandal have shown the positives of our press. However, a much darker side to the media has also emerged in recent years, most notably during the phone-hacking scandal. The nadir of this was arguably the News of the World’s hacking of the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. Other questionable activities such as paparazzi taking voyeuristic pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge on holiday, the Daily Mirror rifling through David Cameron’s bins to see what nappies he used for his heavily disabled son and the Daily Mail’s recent attack on Ed Miliband dead father have all contributed towards a strong feeling of mistrust towards the press. The sentiment emerging is that certain members of the media establishment seem to think they’re above the law and that they can justify any questionable practices with the defense of it being in the public interest. The Press Complaints Commission already in place is effete, toothless and lacks any real clout. A new and improved independent body, free from Fleet Street and government control, should regulate the press. Some might be alarmed at the thought of a regulator tying the press down and restricting their capabilities and what they’re allowed to print, restricting British principles of democracy and free speech. However, the introduction of a regulator not to muzzle the press, but to maintain its high standards and make it accountable is what needs to be brought into place. The press cannot be allowed to carry out practices such as phone-hacking with such temerity. It should not operate above the law. Clear boundaries must be set. In other professions there are already bodies that work to maintain high standards of conduct and discipline, so why should journalism be any different? The suggested regulator would not necessarily try to control what newspapers can print or impinge on their right to offend; it would be there to make sure that their activities are not illegal. The Daily Mail prints material every day that I find abhorrent and offensive and I strongly resent the pernicious influence of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on political life. While I don’t grudge them their right to print whatever they want, I take umbrage at the hacking of people’s phones or encroaching on individual privacy. The role of a good press should be to conduct insightful investigations, expose corruption and keep politicians in check. We rely on the media to act as watchmen on those in power and protect us from the chicanery of politicians. But, to quote a famous dictum from the Roman poet Juvenal, who watches the watchmen?


Matthew Smith

Fourth Year English and Philosophy

The reasoning behind the argument for press control seems to revolve around the standpoint that man is essentially a passive creature. Those who are for press regulation often see man as a product of his circumstances that can only be improved by changing society. Therefore, as controlling what society can read is a good way of Controlling what society can think, they argue that press regulation is almost necessary for the perfection of society. This is not the case. In reality, not only does any comment or report in a newspaper have to get past the critical intelligence of its readers, but there are a dozen other newspapers with different standpoints and cases to argue. This is not to mention the variety of views that are also offered by TV and radio. An essay by Karl Popper called “Searchlight and Bucket Theories of Mind” argues that there are two ways of looking at the relationship between the ‘knower’ and what is known. One of the ways is to see man as entirely passive and the mind as a bucket that indiscriminately accepts anything that is thrown into it. If, therefore, you are exposed to an influence, whatever it might be, it will form the contents of your mind and influence your thoughts and opinions. To view the mind as a searchlight is to take on an entirely different view of how we come to know things and how we form our opinions. To read an article in any newspaper is not to have your opinions readily formed for you, it is to apply your own critical intelligence to an opinion formed by someone else and to make a choice based on your own judgment, about whether or not you accept it. The calls for tighter regulation of the press have been made on the back of the phone hacking scandal, yet it is quite clear that all the misconduct that came to light was already illegal and criminal. So why would we need press regulation to deal with it? To call for press regulation is simply an excuse for the left to take a poke at the press because they have always seen it as predominantly right wing in outlook. The outcome of press regulation would probably end up restricting, rather than protecting, freedoms. Take the Macpherson report into the Lawrence case. It concludes that a racially motivated attack is any attack construed by its victim as racially motivated. Just how irrational is that? In every other situation we accept a difference between what a thing appears to be and what it is. Only in the case of racially motivated attacks does the distinction no longer hold. The reason why silly repressive laws are passed is because people who should know better lack the courage to stand against a tide of public indignation based more on emotion than reason. To open the door to press controls would be like opening your door in a hurricane; you may not be able to close it again, and you will be letting in more than you expected. Tighter regulation of the press is unnecessary because the press is subject to the same laws as the rest of us. The motives of those calling for it are deeply impure and sinister and based on a view of the world that almost inevitably leads them to want to limit people’s freedom.

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