A guide to Britain's new media regulation regime

AP News
Posted: Mar 22, 2013 8:06 AM
A guide to Britain's new media regulation regime

LONDON (AP) — The British government is setting up a new media watchdog to tame the country's scandal-tainted press.

The move comes after a phone hacking scandal caught journalists eavesdropping on voicemails, bribing public officials, and intruding into the private lives of celebrities, athletes, politicians and crime victims. Many journalists, however, fear the new system threatens press freedom. Some are even talking of boycotting it.

Here's how the new U.K. media regulation is expected to work:

Q: Is this the first time Britain is regulating its media?

A: No. The British broadcasting watchdog Ofcom keeps tabs on radio and television programs to ensure diversity of content and to keep Britons from obscene material, and it has the power levy fines or kick rogue stations off the air. That said, Britain's newspapers have not been licensed by the government since 1695.

Q: Why does Britain need a new press regulator?

A: Britain's old regulator — the Press Complaints Commission — had bungled its response to the phone hacking scandal so badly that its demise became inevitable.

When the Guardian newspaper revealed in 2009 that phone hacking was a far bigger problem than had previously been believed, the commission dismissed the news. In a sniffy report, it gave British journalism a clean bill of health, complaining that the Guardian's stories "did not quite live up to (their) dramatic billing."

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said the commission had lost its way. "I thought it was worse than a whitewash," he testified years later.

The scandal's explosion in 2011 shattered the commission's reputation and forced its chairwoman to resign. In a final twist, the panel's own ethics adviser was recently arrested over suspicions that she had been in on the phone hacking all along.

Q: What will the new watchdog do?

A: Victims of press intrusion hope it will be strong enough to do the job the old watchdog didn't: Curb illegal behavior .

The watchdog will have the power to force newspapers to print prominent apologies and take complaints into arbitration. Media that refuse to submit to the regulator could see themselves vulnerable to increased damages in court — a potentially devastating financial penalty. No one currently employed as an editor can serve on the new watchdog's board, ending a practice critics said had made the Press Complaints' Commission too cozy with the media industry.

Q: How is the watchdog being set up?

A: Through a rather baroque maneuver known as a royal charter. Politicians wanted to give the new watchdog some kind of official blessing without the embarrassment of having to pass an authoritarian-sounding press law. What they settled on was an executive act that has historically been used to set up universities, trade bodies, and even the BBC. The government expects the new regulator to be up and running within six to 12 months.

Q: Is everyone signing up?

A: "NO." That was the one-word headline blown up across the entire front page of The Spectator, which boasts of being the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language.

"What started out as a sensible attempt to regulate the 21st-century press somehow ended up lost in the 17th century," editor Fraser Nelson wrote in an editorial. His magazine has been joined by satirical weekly Private Eye and the left-leaning New Statesman in threatening to boycott the regulator. They are far from alone in their opposition but so far no major national newspaper group has followed suit.

Q: Is the watchdog a threat to press freedom?

A: That's the crux of the debate. All sides claim to champion free press — laudatory statements from Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill have been flying thick and fast — but many journalists fear new restrictions on an industry already hemmed in by strict libel laws and hit hard by a fall in circulation and advertising revenue.

But what Britain is doing is hardly unprecedented. Finland, Denmark, and Ireland have similar forms of press regulation. Finnish media laws allow reporters and editors to be fined. Denmark's press council can order corrections. Ireland's press ombudsman provides for mediation, helps craft apologies, and can also impose financial restitution. All three nations rate higher than Britain on the Press Freedom Index by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Q: What about blogs, Twitter, or Facebook?

A: There's lingering uncertainty over whether people who publish outside the mainstream media will be subject to the new British media regulator. The charter's language suggested that any "website containing news-related material" would be covered. That potentially means that blogs — even micro-blogs like Twitter or social networking sites such as Facebook — will fall under the regulator's remit.

Britain's media department has released unofficial guidance suggesting that personal blogs, trade publications, community newsletters and Twitter users won't be covered. But that guidance remains unofficial; any determination would have to be made by a judge.

Q: What does this mean for international news organizations?

A: It's not entirely clear yet. News agencies such as Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press and foreign newspapers such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal may or may not be covered by the rules, but attempts to regulate American media companies seem likely to get a hostile reception.

The New York Times came out against the British regulator in an editorial, warning that it "could chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and Internet sites." The Journal took a similar line in its editorial, saying: "Thank heaven America escaped the control of British royal charters and wrote the First Amendment."