UK Press Charter Debate Shows Advantages Of First Amendment
The British press has been caught up in the debate about a proposed royal charter to regulate the press in the United Kingdom. The charter is the linchpin of an effort to reform the media in the aftermath of the horrific phone hacking scandal, when it was revealed that British tabloids had been hacking into the voicemails of movie stars, athletes and even murder victims. The resulting scandal shut down Britain’s top selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World and drastically weakened the influence of Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s owner.
It also sparked a major public inquiry into the British press led by Lord Justice Leveson. The Leveson Inquiry which culminated in a 2,000 page report in November 2012 recommended a new independent press regulator with the ability to impose fines and direct apologies. This was the backbone of a proposal adopted this week by British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Under the deal, a new National Press Regulator (NPR) would be set up by a royal charter, underpinned by statute, and monitored by a new recognising body, whose first set of members will be appointed by yet another committee, itself partly government-appointed. The charter could be changed only by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Membership of the NPR would be encouraged by the carrot of a simplified libel system; but newspapers that fail to sign up will be subject to harsh exemplary damages.
The NPR is a Rube Goldberg mechanism of press governance that would do nothing change the vicious tabloid culture of Fleet Street or alter Britain’s stringent libel laws. A better solution for the United Kingdom should be to abandon this approach and embrace the American system based on near absolute freedom of the press and relatively tough libel laws.
While no one would argue that American newspapers are perfect, they have a rather remarkable track record for good behavior. Protected by the First Amendment and by a long series of court cases stretching back to John Peter Zenger in 1735, the United States has an unrivaled reputation for its free press protected from abuses of libel law.
In contrast, the British press is often cowed by laws limiting what government information can be published under the Official Secrets Act and places the burden in a libel suit on the publisher of a statement, not the subject. As a result, books like Lawrence Wright’s important expose of Scientology, Going Clear, cannot be published in the United Kingdom for fear of suit.
An elaborate system of press regulation may still work in the United Kingdom but it would be much simpler for all concerned if, like the United States, the British just relied on a few words by James Madison stating that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
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