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Pressing Matters In The UK

The Royal Charter on press regulation in the UK - from inception to delivery.

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The United Kingdom has traditionally been the champion of press freedom. Yet, over the last few weeks, terms such as press regulation, exemplary damages, press code of conduct have kept the British Parliament occupied and the press busy. This has resulted in a Royal Charter on press regulation being adopted by the British Parliament on March 18, 2013. A charter which charts out a brand new roadmap of behaviour, ethics and accountability for the press in UK.

Why a press regulator? And why now?

In 2011, there was a flurry of news reports of celebrities, royals and politicians claiming their phones were being hacked by News of the World. But it seemed to be all white noise for the now-shut News Of The World which carried on functioning while bending media ethics to get the best story.

But in June 2011, things came to a head when it was revealed that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by News of the World after she had gone missing. The public shock and outrage seemed to finally herald the need to regulate the media. A public enquiry took place and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation (which News of the World was a subsidiary of), announced the closure of the newspaper. The death-knell on NOWS began a domino-effect.

British Prime Minister David Cameron set up an inquiry committee headed by Lord Justice Leveson. During the course of the investigation, details about how the UK press flouted all journalistic ethics while pursuing their stories emerged. It was found that the press had been indulging in “blatant surveillance, blagging and deception” as means of news gathering. And its victims were not confined to just celebrities. The NOTW had hacked voice mails of people ranging from kidnapped children to victims of the 7/7 terror attack. The then-self regulatory body, Press Complaint Council came under scathing attack for playing into the hands of the powerful British media. Leading to it finally having to shut down. The Leveson report recommended the formation of an independent watchdog to reign in the media from flouting ethics and showing no restraint in what it would do to get the best story.

The formation of the Royal Charter

On March 18, 2013, after over a 100 hours of discussions, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour party politician Ed Miliband agreed on the formation of a press regulator to be established through a Royal Charter. This lays the foundation for regulation for the first time in over 300 years of press freedom in UK. The new watchdog would have the power to order errant newspapers to publish prominent apologies and to fine them up to £1 million for breaching accepted guidelines.

The Royal Charter – composition and function

Media Watchdog                                  

Reactions from various stakeholders

After Prime Minister David Cameron clinched the deal with the Liberal Democrats and Labour late on Monday night, he said, “I’m confident we’ve set up a system that is practical, that is workable, it protects the freedom of the press, but it’s a good, strong self-regulatory system for victims, and I’m convinced it will work and it will endure”.

Jaqqui Hames of the campaign group, Hacked Off (which played a significant role in the demand for and introduction of press regulations) termed it as a historic day that will be remembered for ushering in a new of era of a “clean and honest press pursuing the stories that really matter.” 

 Labour leader Ed Miliband who was reported to have major differences with Cameron on the final nature of the press regulator hailed the new deal struck by all the parties as a win-win situation for both the media and victims of press intrusion. He said that the “Press has been marking its homework for too long ” and it was time for a body independent of both press and politicians to take up the role of the watchdog so that “no future Milly Dowlers and McCanns have to suffer”.

The victims of media malpractices have also welcomed the new model of media regulation. The Guardian quoted Jane Winter, the director of a human rights charity whose emails were unlawfully accessed by journalists as saying, “We’ve had seven decades of this discussion about where the limits for the press are. We’ve had seven different sorts of investigations and none of them have stuck, they’ve all gathered dust. This is the first time, really, that civil society has made its voice heard”.

Certain members of the British press, however, does not seem as pleased. According to a report in The Independent, five major publishing houses – the Daily Mail Group, News International, Telegraph Media Group, the Newspaper Society (which represents the regional press) and the Professional Publishers Association (which represents the magazine sector) – released a joint statement expressing their dissatisfaction with the developments. Their grudge was that they were not taken into confidence before the government settled for the cross-party arrangement on the issue. The exorbitant amount of fines and the fixed code of editorial policy were not acceptable to them. In fact, regional newspapers fear that the new regulations “would place a crippling burden on the UK’s 1,100 local newspapers, inhibiting freedom of speech and the freedom to publish”.

The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson and Private Eye’s Ian Hislop were the first magazine editors to decline to join the new press regulator. As reported by Guardian, “Nelson said his political weekly, which is owned by Daily Telegraph proprietors the Barclay brothers, could not be part of a system that involved ‘state licensing of the media’.

This leaves only Financial TimesThe Guardian and The Independent under the new regulatory body.

Is there a lesson here for India?

Given the reports of planted stories, paid news, extortion, rampant plagiarism and most importantly, public perception, the Indian press and media have reason enough be very worried. While we may have a Press Council of India, it has not shown much promise. For one it is not empowered to take any action. It’s merely a recommendatory body. Even if it were empowered to take action one worries, judging by the PCI chief’s frequent outbursts. The good news is that we can build on initial work and consultations done by others rather than re-invent the wheel. But for starters we’re still at the stage of media houses hesitantly reporting stories on each other. Baby steps. Once we can walk, we can think of galloping. 

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