With its peerage and royals, Beefeaters and such, Britain in the 21st century sometimes seems like a large theme park, but its historical influence on the USA is clear. From language to culture, and above all to law, what’s happened in Britain hasn’t stayed in Britain.
Which is precisely why that nation’s new press law, which creates by “royal charter” a speech-suppressing media “watchdog,” is so much to be rued. Briefly stated, the watchdog will have the power to oblige participating media to post apologies and take complaints into arbitration, thereby creating a system of government regulation of the press that hasn’t happened there since 1695.
It is commonly said that the tracks that led to this train wreck were laid by the misbehavior of Britain’s tabloid newspapers, and there’s truth in that. Caught in the act after years of hacking into private e-mail and phone calls, and bribing public officials, the tabloids acted outside the bounds not just of ethical journalism, but of the law.
But the better explanation for why the British have now endorsed regulation of the press (rather than relying just on the enforcement of criminal laws already on the books) is because that country has no First Amendment. That, and also because there (as here?) there exist large numbers of people who value political correctness, and political advantage, over freedom of speech.
Indeed, though the new press rules are said to have become inevitable given the failures of Britain’s (recently extinct) Press Complaints Commission (PCC), another way of looking at it is to say that the very existence of the PCC inadvertently cleared the way for the more intrusive regulations.
Some years ago there existed in the United States a National News Council (NNC), whose charter was similar to the PCC. It failed to take root for many reasons, but perhaps most notably because the New York Times’ Abe Rosenthal wisely refused to cooperate with it. Rosenthal’s concern was that the NNC would fail to satisfy press critics, and that some sort of government program would then be invited to succeed it.
The British have long been accustomed to a significant degree of governmental oversight of their broadcasting companies’ content through what is called Ofcom (Office of Communications), but until now the print media have been spared that oversight.
Though billed by its parliamentary sponsors as a voluntary arrangement, the terms of the new press regulation carry onerous potential liabilities, specifically including “exemplary damages” in court, for media companies that don’t join the quango. This may even include some companies that are based elsewhere. Indeed, one of the most powerful criticisms – from such as the New York Times and the Committee To Protect Journalists – is that the regulation assumes authority over bloggers and websites, large and small, foreign and domestic.
“In an attempt to rein in its reckless tabloid newspapers,” said the New York Times, “Britain’s three main political parties this week agreed to impose unwieldy regulations on the news media that would chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and Internet sites.”
But the most compelling and powerful criticism has come from The Spectator, the British publication said to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language. As Nick Cohen wrote on March 18:
The regulator will cover “relevant publishers.” If they do not pay for its services and submit to its fines and rulings … they could face exemplary damages in the courts. It is not just the old (and dying) newspapers, which the state defines as “relevant publishers” but “websites containing news related material.”
What “news related” material can get you into trouble? It turns out to be the essential debates of a free society. Dangerous topics to write about include “news or information about current affairs” and “opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs.” Any free country should want the widest possible range of opinions about current affairs. As of tonight, Britain does not.
There will be a temptation among many in this country to look past what the British have done as nothing more than the antics, as someone once put it, of an exhausted stock; not to worry about anything similar happening here. And there’s some truth in that. Because of our First Amendment and strong case law in defense of it, such regulation is unlikely in this country.
But it’s worth remembering that this happened in Britain at the hands of parliament and that we too have a “parliament,” and regulatory agencies, and that, as in Britain, we have organizations, like the cynically misnamed Free Press, that are constantly pushing for an expansion of government oversight of the media.
Thanks to the Founding Fathers we have some additional protection against the kind of thing that’s just happened in Britain, but vigilance is required, now more than ever.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article titled "Keep U.K. media rules out of U.S." appeared in the print and online editions of USA Today on April 23, 2013, and can be viewed here.