As robust and relevant as the press in the United Kingdom is at present, the threat of state regulation has cast a shadow over its future. After a parliament-backed Royal Charter on Press Self-Regulation was enacted recently, a section of the press now faces the unprecedented allegation of compromising national security through its reportage.
The Editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has been summoned before a House of Commons select committee of the Home Department next month to answer questions on his newspaper’s publication of intelligence files leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Britain’s intelligence chiefs have alleged that by putting this information in the public domain, The Guardian has rendered the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) will send a press freedom mission, comprising leading editors and publishers, to the U.K. in January 2014 to engage with the government on what it sees as a setback for press freedoms in the U.K. and its repercussions elsewhere.
Larry Kilman, CEO and Executive Editor of Communications and Public Affairs, WAN-IFRA, had this to say to The Hindu about the visit.
For WAN-IFRA to send this mission is a measure of how seriously it views what is happening to the press in the U.K. Could you please outline the specific reasons for your concern? Is this mainly about the pressures on the Guardian, or is that one of many issues?
It is one of two major issues, the other being government interference in the regulation of the independent press, through the Royal Charter and associated legislation.
What is a press freedom mission, and when was it decided by WAN-IFRA to send such a team to the U.K.?
As the global association of the world’s press, WAN-IFRA defends and promotes press freedom on behalf of its members — 18,000 newspapers, 15,000 online sites and more than 300 companies in 120 countries. As part of this mission, we organise delegations of leading editors and publishers, who engage with government officials, press and civil society groups in countries where there is cause for concern.
This is our first mission to the U.K. and a rare visit to an established democracy with a tradition of press freedom.
We’ve sent several letters to the government — and one to the Queen — urging them to reject the royal charter. Since those efforts were unsuccessful, we are organising face-to-face meetings.
What are the steps that the mission will ask the Prime Minister to take?
The goal of the mission is threefold: fact-finding, but also to express our concerns to government officials and to impress on them the impact of these developments on press freedom in other countries. I think it would be useful for them to hear direct testimony from editors and publishers in other countries, where there are no press freedom traditions, or where democracy is newly minted, about what a bad example the U.K. is setting with these steps.
Will the Royal Charter on press self-regulation also come within the scope of your conversation? Does this charter and its potential worry you?
Yes. The charter raises serious questions about the future direction of independent press regulation. Although supporters of the Charter claim the new system is self-regulation, in reality it is a set of repressive statutory controls being imposed on the press against its will. It lays down rules about how the regulator must work and how ethical codes for the press should be written. As we’ve seen elsewhere around the world, there is broad potential for abuse when politicians get involved in editorial content regulation.
Why do you think the situation for the press has come to this state in the U.K.?
I think it comes from a lack of understanding about the role of the independent press that comes from taking press freedom and other liberties for granted, which is something that can occur in mature democracies. The danger is not that press freedom will disappear overnight, but that it will be gradually eroded by well-intentioned people who don’t fully respect the essential role the independent press fulfils in serving as a watchdog, in uncovering mismanagement and wrongdoing and corruption. And when press abuses occur, there are other mechanisms to deal with it. Let’s not forget it was the press itself that uncovered the phone hacking scandal — it was doing its job successfully.
Do you think there is merit in the argument that the media compromise public security when it reports on surveillance mechanisms from material that Snowden leaked?
Not really. Although there is a legitimate debate — the public’s right to know versus security concerns — for the most part the Snowden revelations were reviewed and vetted by credible media organisations, which took steps to avoid publishing damaging materials. The revelations about the extent of the surveillance are clearly in the public interest. It is hard to see how revealing that the National Security Agency was monitoring the mobile phone conversation of friendly government leaders is anything but in the public interest.
What will be the composition of the mission, and roughly, its size? What is the kind of representation it will have?
We expect 5 to 15 participants, mostly editors and publishers from leading newspapers around the world.