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Global_18

Inbox GLOBALIST Ian Beales A represser’s guide to press freedom? The surest sign that a national institution is in trouble is when a team of overseas inspectors fl ies in, like Thunderbirds from Business Class or a pinstriped International Rescue, to pronounce upon it. If public health is at risk, the World Health Organization (WHO) is on the health ministry’s doorstep before you can say WHO. If a nation’s fi nances are failing, suits from the International Monetary Fund will crawl over the Treasury’s books while the home team looks on, steaming silently. It is an ignominious business. So when, in March, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) completed just such an external investigation into a perceived threat to press freedom, it was not just the damning verdict that caused international shock. It was the identity of the guilty culprit. It wasn’t China, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, or any of the usual suspects languishing in the half-light at the very bottom of world press freedom indices. The country in the dock was Britain: bastion of free speech and home to the legendary – if now virtual – Fleet Street, which had once exported its own brand of frank, fearless and free journalism as a model to the world. For the UK, this was ignominy on stilts; a shaming moment. WAN-IFRA found Britain guilty on two counts. First, parliament’s response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards, triggered by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, had produced a cure worse than the disease. It proposed, without adequate legal or public scrutiny, that the UK should adopt a system of press regulation involving a royal charter – a peculiarly British device, arcane and unfathomable – with statutory underpinning, ending 300 years free from state controls. Second, the UK government had acted heavy-handedly with The Guardian after it published Edward Snowden’s US National Security Agency leaks, which had earned the paper a mixed reception of acclamation and condemnation. But what concerned WAN-IFRA most was not the effect of these actions in Britain, but abroad. It would give autocratic leaders, worldwide, a bogus legitimacy to tighter media regulation. Britain, once an exporter of press freedom, could soon be exporting media controls. This was not merely a theoretical risk. It was already happening. Cue President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. “Foreign countries show that Ecuador is right,” said this defender of some of Latin America’s most repressive media laws. “The United Kingdom has created a communication law to regulate the excesses of a certain yellow press in that country.” Latin Americans might be entitled to a jaundiced view of yellow journalism, given that the 1898 Spanish-American war was fanned by a hysterical newspaper battle between rival US publishing giants, William R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. But contorting the current UK proposals to justify press repression a century later was naked political opportunism by an exponent with form. There is also evidence of the ripple effect from Sri Lanka, where the Leveson Report is privately cited as having prompted a government proposal – later shelved – to impose a harsh statutory code on the press. Nor is it only authoritarian regimes that seize the moment. Even before Leveson reported, the Australian and New Zealand governments had instinctively set up parallel inquiries, without any evidence of media phone-hacking. In a shrinking world, legislative contagion is the new pandemic. But the real debate, which the UK crisis has brought into focus, is within journalism itself and wider society. What is journalism for, where is it going in the digital age – and has it gone too far? Everyone – including most leaders of those countries at the bottom of the press freedom indices – agree with the principle of press freedom. Very few agree on the practice. A line from Night and Day, the post-colonial satire by British playwright and one-time journalist, Tom Stoppard, sums it up: “I’m all for a free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.” Perhaps he wasn’t joking. On the day WAN-IFRA’s report condemning parliament’s royal charter was published, fullpage advertisements supporting the charter appeared in newspapers, signed by a glittering list of the great, the good, the right, the genuinely-wronged and the high-minded elite. It comprised leading media fi gures, professors, philosophers, lobbyists, former editors, senior journalists, broadcasters, authors, artists, actors, comedians and playwrights – including Tom Stoppard. Most of them, as public fi gures, would consider themselves as victims, or potential victims, of press abuse. The list also included some very ordinary, otherwise anonymous, people thrust into the public spotlight by circumstance, who described themselves simply as victims of press abuse, sometimes rightly: the press is rarely the subtlest messenger of fate. The advertisements were organised by Hacked Off, a private pressure group for press reform so infl uential that it had been present when, in the small hours – and in the absence of any press industry representation – political party leaders had agreed the terms of the royal charter. Hacked Off’s celebrity campaign was a calculated and striking contrast to the WAN-IFRA report, which had been produced by very senior independent press observers representing Will press regulation curb free speech? 6 l www.global -br ief ing.org second quar ter 2014 global


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