The Commonwealth Journalists Association urges the UK government and main political parties to reconsider the introduction of statutory controls to regulate the press.
Legislative measures include the underpinning of a Royal Charter by a provision in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill and an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill threatening any newspaper that refuses to sign up to a ‘voluntary’ press regulator with exemplary damages in court cases.
The CJA considers it is a basic principle of democracy that politicians should not impose standards of ethics and behaviour on journalists, and the right way to protect victims of excessive press intrusion and other abuses exposed by recent events is through a reformed system of self-regulation.
We believe the phone-hacking scandal and other press behaviour which led to heightened public concern could have been dealt with under the criminal law. Failings were exposed on the part of politicians and the police as well as the press, and to seek a remedy in the manner now being proposed is a one-sided and distorted response.
The CJA is gravely concerned that the proposed changes send the wrong signal to other countries including members of the Commonwealth. Britain must not set an example which encourages authoritarian regimes elsewhere to further shackle their free and independent media.
We endorse the concerns expressed by representatives of Europe’s leading inter-governmental human rights organisations. The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, said that political controls on the media ‘always lead to misuse of power’. The Representative on Media Freedom of the Organisations for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic called the phone-hacking scandal a criminal issue which ‘should not be used to rein in all print media’.
The UK press has shown itself willing to accommodate some far-reaching reforms recommended by Lord Justice Leveson. But the proposals announced on 18 March were put together in haste and without the consent of the press that is essential to make them workable. Instead, a flawed package was voted by parliament under pressure from less than noble party political factors.
The new rules would be legally enforced by a Royal Charter which sets up a permanent process of recognition to oversee the approved regulator. Elected politicians would surely demand a yet bigger say if in time the new setup is deemed to have failed, as seems likely if some major newspapers decline to take part.
Far from distancing politicians from the process as Prime Minister David Cameron had promised, this places responsibility for the system in the hands of parliament, ministers and a secretive body, the Privy Council. The current Lord President of the Privy Council is the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.
The proposed measures are open to legal challenge, especially the proposals to expose newspapers outside the system to punitive damages and all legal costs. The CJA is also deeply concerned about proposed legislation that would restrict journalists’ right to protect the confidentiality of their sources, a vital protection for investigative journalism.
CJA journalists in some other Commonwealth countries have voiced fears that the UK’s example will encourage authoritarian governments in other parts of the world to clamp down on their own media and its indispensable role in every democratic society. Here are some of their comments:-
CJA Cameroon: This move to stifle the press in a great nation like Britain is not only disgraceful but runs riot with modern democratic principles and values as enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter of which Britain is a bona fide founding member. The mistakes of a few cannot be blamed on the entire press corps.
Those advocating for this regulation are certainly moving to set the world ablaze, and giving African dictators ammunition to silence their people by drawing ugly examples from Britain.
CJA Canada: Canada’s media holds a strong view that government regulation is undesirable. Press Councils are taken seriously, in the recognition that self-regulation is essential to avoid unwanted government control.
CJA India: The nuances in the current press regulations being thought of in Britain will probably disappear in copycat rules framed by other countries, and they could turn into straightforward, old-style press censorship.
CJA Uganda: Is worried that the UK is going to send a wrong signal to the rest of the Commonwealth. CJA Uganda has successfully opposed a government media council and came up with a non-statutory Independent media council.
About the CJA:
The Commonwealth Journalists Association is a voluntary professional association offering training and moral support to journalists in Commonwealth countries where the media lacks resources, comes under pressure from government and commercial interests, or suffers threats of violence.
It operates on behalf of working journalists throughout the Commonwealth, comprised of 54 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, North and South America, and the Pacific.
For more information:
Rita Payne, CJA President
Pat Perkel, Executive Director