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British papers rebel as UK press regulation moves closer to reality

Even as the House of Lords passed legislation that would create a new, independent press watchdog, British editors lined up to condemn the body as a threat to basic freedoms.

It is meant to be the solution to the British media scandal of the decade.

But while Britain’s plan for its first legal regulation of the press in the country in 318 years has been heralded by the leaders of all three major parties and victims of the phone-hacking scandal that brought down the News of the World, it has also brought virtually the entire British press into open revolt.

On Monday, the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper house of Parliament, passed without a vote the plan to introduce a new, independent regulator enshrined in a Royal Charter which proponents say will rein in the litany of dodgy practices uncovered by the Leveson Inquiry, which made its recommendations last November.

The new regulatory body has teeth – any newspaper that refuses to register with it will face “exemplary damages” in any court action against them. Still, British editors are rebelling, drawing battle lines between supporters of a free press and those who demand a respectful one.

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Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger penned a signed editorial in his own newspaper Sunday, supporting plans for newspapers to set up their own regulatory body, effectively ignoring the Royal Charter.

This intervention by the professorial, mild-mannered editor of a liberal newspaper will have sent shockwaves through Britain’s cliquish political class. The Guardian, after all, was the newspaper that exposed alleged phone hacking and bribery at the now-defunct News of the World and has since argued for the taming of the excesses of the British press.

More importantly, it leaves the low-circulation Independent newspaper alone in its support for government regulation. All of the other national papers have indicated they will not participate.

Hacked off hacks

Nick Cohen, a noted journalist with the Observer, the Guardian’s Sunday sister paper, has been campaigning against press regulation, often locking horns with his his political allies. A basic freedom is under threat, says Mr. Cohen.

“The British middle class has gone into one of its periodic fits of hysteria. To sustain this they’ve had to ignore two things that have changed in Britain since the 1990s: the invention of the Internet and the Human Rights Act,” he says.

Cohen says that proponents of press regulation overlook that the Internet has effectively given everyone the ability to be potential publishers – thereby increasing the breadth of the restrictions they impose to all Britons, not just newspapers, as well as granting everyone a kind of right of reply. And, he adds, they ignore that the Human Rights Act guarantee of privacy already grants legal recourse to those threatened with being unfairly splashed across newspaper pages.

Despite this, the government’s proposed Royal Charter for governing the press is widely supported by celebrities seeking privacy, victims of alleged phone hacking, and left-liberals seeking to give press barons such as News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch a bloody nose.

It has also won support from a more unlikely source: the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the leading journalists’ union in Britain and Ireland.

(Another option for the UK: Could Ireland’s less stringent system for press regulationwork in Britain?)

Cohen slams the NUJ leadership for its decision, arguing that supporting regulation is contrary to the interests of working journalists. “They will not ballot the members on this. It’s [union leadership] carefully controlled by the far-left,” he says.

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Michael Cross, a journalist in London who has run for office in the NUJ, says he has had enough, and he’s not alone. “I am actually close to despair,” he says, noting that none of his colleagues support the plan.

Tim Luckhurst, now a journalism professor but formerly with the BBC, has quit. “I was proud to be a member throughout my career in journalism, but the union’s decision to support statutory involvement in the regulation of newspapers was an unacceptable breach of democratic principle, which left me horrified,” he says.

The smaller and usually more conservative Institute of Journalists has rejected regulation while a third union, the British Association of Journalists, has no official position on the move.

The NUJ is not recognized by News International, News Corp’s British wing and owner of the now closed News of the World tabloid at the center of the phone hacking scandal that led to the Leveson inquiry. For its part, the NUJ says non-recognition is a proximate cause of the scandals of recent years.

“The removal of the unions from many national newspapers removed a counterbalance to the editors and, as we’ve seen, removed one of the most important protections for ethical journalism – journalists organized in a trade union with an ethical code of conduct. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the changes the advent of the same Mr. Murdoch into US television has wrought,” former union president Donnacha DeLong told The Monitor in an e-mail.

But Mick Hume, journalist and author of the recently published book, “There is No Such Thing as a Free Press …and We Need One More Than Ever,” says  “Murdochphobia” is blinding activists to their own interests.

“I was on the picket line in Wapping” striking against Rupert Murdoch, he says. “But this isn’t about class struggle. It’s about protecting a basic freedom, without which there would be no possibility of radical politics anyway.”

Free or out of control?

Supporters of regulation insist it’s not about muzzling the press. Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror tabloid and now a Guardian columnist and journalism professor, says he is “relaxed” about statutory underpinning of regulation.

“I don’t believe it will be restrictive of our freedoms,” he says.

Mr. Greenslade stops short of denouncing the press, saying: “The British press hasn’t really been out of control since the 1980s. They’ve certainly misbehaved, and the phone hacking was a terrible example of this.”

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Greenslade says the boisterousness of the British press is exacerbated by “intense competition in a declining market,” with scoop-hungry editors pressuring reporters to get the story at any cost.

Journalism professor and author of “A Right to Offend” Brian Winston, says the newspaper industry could yet dig its own grave: “I think they could well get the legislation they fear most. The whole situation is bizarre.”

For Mr. Winston, press regulation is not only unnecessary when there are already laws against the activities scrutinized by Leveson, it also misses the real problem he see with British journalism: media ownership being concentrated in the hands of a few rich corporations and individuals.

“The fact of the matter is we should not be trying to control the content of newspapers. There is absolutely no justification for specific regulation of the press. It’s the wrong answer to the wrong question,” he says.