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Sense and sense of liberty: why we need a free press

    Our intern, Tom Waters, signs off his time with the CPS by explaining why Hugh Grant is wrong to call for more press regulation

    Last night, Question Time saw 55 minutes of its one hour schedule taken up by a single issue: the News of the World. The panel consisted of QT’s normal structure – one politician from each of the three main parties, one journalist, and one ‘wild card’. Last night’s wild card was Hugh Grant.

    On the programme, Grant made a sizable demand: that newspapers ought to be more heavily regulated, to the same level as News TV stations – where no partiality can be shown, and each channel must ensure that all viewpoints are aired. “I’m not for regulating the… the proper press, the broadsheet press”, he said. “But it is insane to me, that the tabloid press has been left unregulated all this time.

    The first thing we might notice about this demand is that the ‘proper’ newspapers are exempt. Grant doesn’t even attempt to hide the ‘one rule for us, another for them’ type thinking. Those papers which write about foreign policy, the stock market and literature are sensible enough to operate without regulation; but who knows what those red-tops might say next!

    But suppose we did acquiesce to regulation of the tabloids. What would that look like in practice? I think that what we would find is that it would be a massive opportunity for politicians to shut up dissenting voices and give a free pass to ‘their own’. Indeed, Shirely Williams (also on the panel) alluded to this problem herself, in the context of the monitoring of competition, saying that, “A minister has to agree to refer a case to the OFT [Office of Fair Trading]. In my case, I foolishly referred the Observer-Guardian merger. Since that time, no minister of either government has referred any mergers of major newspapers which happen to support them – only the ones that don’t.”

    Giving politicians’ arbitration over what the press can say is bound to be open to the same sort of abuse. Even if the regulator was ‘independent’, there would be demands for politicians to go further when it was perceived that the regulator wasn’t doing enough – as seen in the current scandal, where there are calls for the government to block the BskyB takeover or pass it to the Competition Commission, despite the fact that it’s in the remit of Ofcom – an independent regulator.

    So notional ‘independence’ is unlikely to solve the danger of political arbitration. The only way to avoid that problem is a free press. But then how can we ensure that newspapers don’t do terrible things?

    Well firstly, if their actions are actually illegal then they can, or at least should, be dealt with by the police and judiciary – be it phone hacking, libel or unwarranted infringements in privacy.

    And secondly, actions which are deemed wrong but not illegal are regulated by the market. The News of the World shutting down is a perfect example of this. Consumers, angry at the behaviour and general moral attitude of the News of the World pledged to boycott the paper and demanded that advertisers pull out. They did, and the paper shut down.

    So, if we want to ensure that newspapers which do abhorrent things (or even just are really shoddy journalists) pay the price, but without the danger of political arbitration, we need to allow the free market to operate in the media.

    And indeed, empirically, those countries who do not embrace markets generally do regulate the press. Mapping the statistics from the Freedom of the Press Report against the Index of Economic Freedom yields the following graph*:

    What we see is that those countries with fewer economic freedoms tend to also feel a need to have state regulation of the press. But in those countries with a high degree of economic freedom, a free press can be allowed– because it is the market which does the regulating. And, given that – as this CPS Factsheet illuminates – we have been slipping down the economic freedom rankings for some time, we need to consider whether we really want our press to go the same way.

    Moreover, doesn’t there seem to be something strikingly reprehensible about calling for a move away from a free press in a year which has seen millions of citizens in the Middle East take to the streets to demand exactly that right from their authoritarian government? Hugh Grant is wrong. The market might not be perfect, but it is still the best regulator of the press.

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