THE BLOG

Press Regulation - Why the Status Quo Works

18/03/2013 10:54 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

When it emerged that the News of the World had engaged in widespread hacking of mobile phones, including the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, there was widespread public anger. This anger led to a mass withdrawal of advertisers from the publication, and in turn to the decision by News International to shut the paper down. The public decided that the actions of the paper were unacceptable, and the paper felt the consequences financially.

The system worked.

The aforementioned illegalities committed by News International journalists, among others, have led to a long running police investigation into lawbreaking in the press. This has led to arrests and convictions, of which there will be many more. The police was late, incurious and, at times complicit, but public anger is forcing them to make up for lost time.

The system (eventually) worked.

Chris Jeffries suffered hounding, harrassment and distress following false allegations made by the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Daily Record, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Scotsman with regard to the Joanna Yeates murder investigation.

Jeffries sued the papers for defamation, recieving a 'substantial' sum, thought to be six figures, in damages. He was able to cover the costs of his action through a 'no win, no fee' arrangement. The Daily Mirror was fined £50,000 and the Sun £18,000 for breach of the Contempt of Court Act.

The system worked.

Phone hacking, libel, harassment - these are all crimes, for which there is legal recourse. Invasion of privacy is covered under the Human Rights Act, while we still have it.

The problem here isn't that the status quo isn't good enough. The status quo, properly implemented, works. If the police failed to investigate and prosecute phone hacking fully, the answer isn't a tougher regulator, it's a tougher police force.

The demise of conditional fee arrangements - so called 'no win, no fee' deals - will become a barrier to justice for victims of press malfeasance. So here's a crazy idea. Instead of implementing a shiny, new, controversial, bureaucratic, toothy and doubtless costly new regulation framework….why don't we just make it cheaper and easier to take news outlets to court? Why not extend legal aid to defamation actions?

Wouldn't that solve everyone's problems? It would give regular people direct, affordable access to justice and wouldn't unfairly protect the rich and powerful (who would simply find themselves on an equal footing with everyone else). Making it cheaper and easier to sue would certainly act as a deterrent for the press, without raising new fears of censorship or state meddling. It even gets around the vast majority of the dreaded 'blog problem' because there's no new rules, it's just that they'd be applied properly.

Win-win, no?