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Commentary: Regulating the media

The idea of “regulating” the news media plays quite differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. In the United States it’s unthinkable: Press regulation of any sort would inevitably trample sacred freedoms and unleash state apparatchiks to badger and stifle the media.

But in Britain the notion that news media need grownup supervision is widely held and periodically attempted. Since the early 1950s, under perpetual threat that Parliament might act, the news industry has created voluntary entities to handle complaints and offer redress for people who were slimed, bullied or otherwise, as they say here, rubbished.

Self-regulation hasn’t worked so well. The current cop, the Press Complaints Commission, was hatched 20 years ago after a rash of press abuses in the late ’80s. A minister admonished the media then they were “drinking in the last-chance saloon” and further misconduct would bring new laws.

On to today’s phone-hacking scandal, universally cited as the spawn of toothless self-regulation. The scandal’s initial focus was on years of surveillance and bribery by Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid.

In its wake came arrests and Parliamentary hearings into broader practices among Britain’s hypercompetitive press, led by 10 dailies — with another half-dozen titles on Sundays — all vying for a national market and “fighting like ferrets in a sack for readers and for survival,” as London journalism professor Steven Barnett puts it.

What, if anything, should be done may depend now on the recommendations of a senior judge, Sir Brian Leveson, appointed by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to lead a sweeping inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the press.”

The Leveson Inquiry opened in July and uncorked a flood of tales from celebrities and civilians lacerated by the media:

The landlord in Bristol who came under scrutiny when one of his tenants was murdered, and who spent weeks having his eccentricities paraded in the press until police found the real killer.

The couple whose daughter was abducted in Portugal and who, the tabloids suggested, might have sold her into slavery.

The single mother of two who agreed to take part in a story about people who abandon the city to start afresh in the country; instead she ended up in a Daily Mail centerspread of distortion and innuendo about her sex life.

One private investigator who specialized in gathering personal records — bank, medical, driving and more — worked for over 300 journalists from 30 publications.

The inquiry now has shifted focus onto the prickly relations between press and politicians. Testifying at the session I attended last week was a master at media handling, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who made his mark as a media critic in a memorable 2007 speech, when he compared the press to “a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits . . . ”

Now 59, with a movie-star tan and impeccably attired, Blair said he decided soon into his first term he would “manage” the media rather than waste political capital “confronting” it over its “poison.”

Ironically, he’s reviled by many ex-supporters because of his success at manipulating those same media, notably to gin up support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and he had little to suggest that might make press-politician relations less toxic. But he did favor an independent body to handle complaints.

Leveson, too, offering an early look at his thinking, suggested a mechanism “independent of government, the state, Parliament and the press,” something that “has got to work for people without money, it has got to be speedy, it has got to be effective. In other words, it has got to achieve a result” — forcing corrections, apologies, even fines.

Blair speculated about why the U.S. press is relatively benign, with “a strong set of standards,” and noted the “disaggregated market” U.S. media serve.

I think he was onto something, but the roots of so-called press responsibility in this country lay not just in the fractured market but in the rampant spread of local newspaper monopolies over the last 50 years. Newspapers — where the culture of today’s news business was incubated — no longer viewed themselves as needing to outgun rivals for market dominance.

Instead, they focused on building legitimacy as civic benefactors, sought to keep readers and advertisers loyal and content, and placed a greater premium on restraint than on the aggressiveness that had marked the previous, competitive era.

The question now is whether in the digital age, marked by real-time news scrambling, the media are moving toward a new hypercompetitive epoch, and a corresponding impatience with patience and accuracy.

If so, the “poison” Blair deplored may become more than a British problem, and self-regulation a prospect to be addressed on our side of the Atlantic as well.