The Leveson Inquiry recently began taking evidence into the role of the press and police in the phone hacking scandal. Whilst the police role in the scandal is an important one – and says a great deal about the problems of a state-run police force – the potential threat to press freedom is far greater.
The economics of the newspaper industry has been cited by some as a factor driving journalists towards unethical behaviour or, worse, break laws. Lost in the general discussion of the economics of the industry is the behemoth that is the BBC. It should be noted that, after the demise of the News of the World, News Corp controls around 20% of UK daily paper circulation, whilst the BBC controls 60% of the broadcast news audience. It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that the BBC itself protested against the News Corp takeover of BSkyB on the basis that it threatened competition!
Newspapers have been unable to monetise the internet as an income stream. This is in part because the BBC website offers so much content for free (i.e licence fee-payer funded) that it heavily distorts the market and mitigates against charging for content. The BBC itself has been forced to recognise this and plans to scale back its website by 20% to allow ‘room’ for competition. Local radio stations also suffer hugely from crowding-out by BBC local radio. Similarly, local paper circulation and revenues have been damaged by the council ‘freesheets’ that Eric Pickles was meant to dispose of.
There was some discussion over the meaning of ‘public interest’, which seemed to revolve around a rather simplistic fallacy over possible meanings of the word ‘interest’. Clearly, there is a clash between the public interest and private interests in privacy that need to be resolved on a legal level. I would suggest that there ought to be a critical distinction, however, between a public and a private figure. A public figure is, or ought to be, a figure who has sought elected or appointed public office (i.e. is in receipt of a public stipend) – a private figure has not. Clearly, a ‘public interest’ applies to information in the case of the former that does not in the case of the latter and there may be different standards of privacy between the two.
Broadcasters in the UK are already subject to rules on ‘objectivity’ which really represent a curb on freedom of speech. As no individual is capable of objectivity, this simply hides broadcaster’s bias from easy scrutiny and furthermore, restricts freedom of choice. It is a great shame that there has been no equivalent to Radio Caroline breaking the state’s attack on freedom of expression, represented by that most malign figure Tony Benn.
Above all else, statutory regulation of the press must be avoided and I sincerely hope that the Leveson does not recommend this. Whilst the phone hacking scandals have exposed regrettable behaviour on the part of a certain portion of the press, that behaviour is punishable under existing criminal law. Moreover, the closure of The News of the World showed that such activity is not sustainable under a competitive press. Given that the greatest threat to press competition is government intervention, one wonders how a regulator could enhance it. Regulators invariably decrease competition by driving up barriers to entry. Newspapers are increasingly subject to checks on their accuracy and market share by the emergence of new media, especially on the internet, so there is no reason to suppose that there is a serious threat of market domination.
A statutory regulator would mean that bureaucrats and politicians, rather than producers or consumers of newspapers, had the ultimate say over what should or should not be published in them. The public choice consequences of such a regulator are vast. Politicians and bureaucrats already have a symbiotic relationship with the press; regulatory capture and rent-seeking are simply inevitable. At the same time, given that the press does – to some degree - play a role in scrutinising and restricting the activities of bureaucrats and politicians the dangers of the latter dictating to the former are also substantial. We should look to other countries that regulate their press: China, Burma...