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A Self-Regulating Press is the Only Way to Protect our Media

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Tabatha Leggett, Philosophy Student and Co-Editor of Cambridge University's online tabloid "The Tab" , defended the British press from calls for increased regulation alongside Max Clifford earlier this term. This article follows up that speech with a strong defence of the UK media's freedom.

Many people think the press has too much power and not enough responsibility. These people are wrong.

Arguments in favour of self-regulation are always going to be contentious, especially when we consider the events of the last year, which have so fundamentally shaken the way in which we look at the press in this country. But just because a free press has its failings does not mean that it is not comparatively better to the dangers brought by over-regulation.

The Press Complaints Commission provides an interesting case study. The PCC is a voluntary regulatory body for British printed newspapers and magazines. Publications can sign up to the PCC by paying an annual fee, which then means they must adhere to the rulings of the Commission. The PCC is self-regulating, since its money comes from the press, the people on its board come from the press and it is written by the press.

So why do people sign up to it? Why does self-regulation work?

The PCC offers a safety net; if journalists slip up, the PCC is there to help. And journalists do slip up, of course they do. There isn't a newspaper in this country that hasn't reported something inaccurately at some point in time. But it is exactly this recognition - the recognition that we are not going to always be right, paired with the incentives that exist within the criminal justice system - that force us to self regulate.

There are always going to be journalists without scruples who don't want to play by the rules; this fact is unavoidable. But even for these people, the threat of being unemployable and of severe lawsuits, not to mention the need to be able to secure reliable witnesses for non-sensational stories, means that they try to play by the book as much as they can. Signing up to the PCC makes perfect sense.

Besides, for every black sheep there is a sanctimonious type waiting to keep him in check. Let's not forget that the Guardian brought the News of The World's phone hacking scandal to the public attention three whole years before the police did. This is solid proof that a free press can and does self-regulate.

Acting responsibly is in journalists' best interests because the public is intelligent. The public responds badly to press it deems unacceptable. Look, for example, at how the Sun's reporting of the Hillsborough disaster - a human crush that resulted in the deaths of many Liverpool fans - caused most newsagents in Liverpool refuse to stock the paper. Acting responsibly makes financial sense. It's simple: bad journalism affects sales. When Alan Rusbringer publishes a story about The News Of The World, it causes advertisers to pull out. It causes the paper to shut down. It causes journalists to lose their jobs.

Despite my background in journalism and my firm belief in freedom of the press, I'd be a fool not to recognise that the press does do some things that are not good. And it is absolutely clear that what the people at the News of the World did was wrong. But that is not to say that the system under which they were operating was flawed. This summer's phone hacking scandal did not demonstrate a general failure of the press, but rather a collection of specific failures, which were primarily extrinsic to the press. The fact that the police weren't doing their job properly was not the fault of the press.

And let us not forget that the specific failures that caused moral outrage at News of the World were exactly that - specific. They involved a small number of journalists. None of us would know that our elected representatives were claiming for duck houses, moats, or second homes miles from their constituencies, if The Daily Telegraph hadn't undertaken the type of deep investigative journalism that is right at the heart of the power that a free press offers.

And so, given the relative strength of a self-regulating press, what are the relative weaknesses of the alternative - an independent body of regulators?

If we introduced an independent body of regulators (something life Ofcom), what would we regulate? Presumably our objective would be to avoid causing offense, but what level of offense are we talking about? And who would make up the regulatory body? The government? What would happen to the people who break the rules? How will they be punished? And just what would we regulate? What is the press? Presumably we'd regulate broadsheet papers and tabloids, but what remit would personal blogs and Twitter fall under?

The existence of the internet means that people will publish what they want when they want to. If we enforce restrictions on what we can publish in this country, people will write online blogs and write for foreign publications. If our most reliable UK sources are choked off, people will be forced to rely on publications that are less reputable, and perhaps even illegal.

Allowing large companies and important institutions, such as the government, to regulate the press would be disastrous. As super-injunctions have shown, those with money have the ability to stifle discussion and to prevent the publication of facts they find inconvenient. If we introduce an independent regulator, politicians would most likely frame regulations in a way that would impede the investigation of serious wrongdoing by public figures, and even diminish the ability of the press to criticise government policy. This would be disastrous for the media, and for democracy.

But the most important point of all - a point which often gets overlooked in this debate - is that introducing an independent regulator would kill off all the little start-ups. The Tab, Cambridge's student tabloid has provided Cantabs with headlines such as: Clungegate, Where are all the Lesbians? and Turd Class Honours. It is so unconventional to have a tabloid student newspaper in an institution which is as stuck up as Cambridge University, and the fact that the Tab is Cambridge's most-read student newspaper is wonderful. And yet if over-regulation had stifled the Tab at birth, it wouldn't exist.

If we introduced an independent body of regulators, the Tab would have to shut down. There's no way we could afford a full-time "compliance officer" to check that everything we publish is consistent with complex laws. And Cambridge would undoubtedly be a lesser place without the Tab.

Introducing statutory legistalion would kill off all the little start-ups that are the very lifeblood of innovation. Statutory legislation would create more problems than it solves, and since a free press automatically controls the press, it is already a system with its own built in regulator. A self-regulating press is infinitely preferable to an independently regulated press. Whilst you cannot trust journalists to reliably report news all of the time, you can at least trust them to reliably shit on each other.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union and interested in contributing to this blog, email press@cus.org for more details

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