The latest standoff between the British Parliament and the press goes to the heart of what democracy means. On October 11, the David Cameron government published a revised version of a draft royal charter that would create a press regulator; the move was prompted partly by Lord Justice Leveson’s November 2012 recommendation, following a two-year inquiry into press methods, of an independent regulator. The proposal also arose in part from the fact that sections of the press had used hacking and even bribery in pursuit of stories. In addition, the existing body, the Press Complaints Commission, had failed to restrain the worst excesses or to give satisfactory redress to victims of press wrongs. Public suspicion, provoked by the revelation that journalists had hacked the mobile telephone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and left messages to suggest that she was still alive, deepened further as the closeness of editors and owners to senior politicians emerged.
In response, many newspaper groups have proposed their own draft charter, involving an Independent Press Standards Organisation. There would be no lay membership and no compulsory arbitration; mass complaints would be accepted only over any “substantial” public interest; the regulator could not direct apologies or remedies. Amendments would require not a two-thirds majority in Parliament but a unanimous vote among the members of a recognition panel, the regulatory board, and the boards of all the trade associations. The Guardian and the Independent have so far not signed up to either proposal, and there is some animosity among media bodies themselves. The Daily Mail and the Murdoch-owned Sun, interpreting a recent speech by the MI5 director-general, Andrew Parker, have attacked the Guardian for publishing the U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, that may be a form of retaliation because the Guardian broke the phone-hacking story, which caused the closure of the News of the World. Furthermore, some papers may bring cases in the European Court of Human Rights over parts of the parliamentary draft. Crucially, the press is not rejecting regulation; negotiations continue. In many other countries, including the U.S. and India, such state-driven regulation of the media would be considered a gross violation of democratic principles, not to speak of being unconstitutional. Taking advantage of the unscrupulous and even illegal conduct of a section of the press, the Cameron government has brought all British newspapers to the edge of a dangerous precipice. If they go down, the domino effect can only be imagined as other states seek to impose their own versions of a “regulated” press.