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March 17, 2014updated 18 Mar 2014 1:47pm

World editors urge UK Government to ‘step back’ over press regulation and attacks on Guardian

By Dominic Ponsford

The first ever World Association of Newspapers press freedom mission to the UK has urged the Government to back away from any further involvement in regulation of the press.

In a report published today it warned that statutory involvement in UK press regulation could have a stifling effect on press freedom worldwide. And it also express solidarity with The Guardian which has been subject to government threats over its reporting of surveillance based on the leaked Edward Snowden documents.

The WAN-IFRA mission took place last month and involved interviews with a number of publishers’ representatives, campaigners and other media experts.

Last year a cross-party Royal Charter on press regulation was signed by The Queen which was backed up legislation threatening punitive damages in libel and privacy cases for publishers who are not members of an officially-recognised press regulator. Despite this, most major newspaper and magazine publishers have signed up to their own rival regulator – The Independent Press Standards Organisation – which is set to launch in May.

Talking about the shortcomings of the Royal Charter system, the WAN-IFRA report said: “Publishers are encouraged to ‘voluntarily’ sign up to a regulator governed by the Royal Charter system – punitive damages for non-compliance are an explicit threat should they decide not to. This defies any definition of ‘voluntary’ as understood by the WAN-IFRA delegation.”

The final version of the Royal Charter was infamously agreed in a late night negotiations between politicians and representatives of Hacked Off on March 2013. Publishers feel it was presented to them as a fait accompli.

WAN-IFRA said: “The exclusion of the industry in the final drafting process of the Royal Charter was a major error, if the intention was for a genuine improvement in the culture, ethics and professionalism of the press. A solution that did not include any of the media industry is entirely counterproductive, and can be described as no form of solution at all.”

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The WAN-IFRA report also contained some veiled criticism of the stance adoped by UK publishers on press regulation. Under the current IPSO plan, the Editors’ Code Committee will be convened by IPSO. Publishers have so far failed to engage in open consultation about the IPSO plan or to meet with critics of the press.

The report said: "Editors representing a wide cross-section of the industry should be responsible for drafting or amending any new Code of Practice, with the assistance of individuals from outside the profession. They should all be independent of any regulatory body or legally defined oversight committee.

“There has been a real lack of public discussion about the implications of the issues raised by the Leveson Inquiry and their effects – positively or negatively – for freedom of expression in the United Kingdom. The ongoing polarisation between the two sides in the debate has not helped The Royal Charter system – used as an example or transposed elsewhere to countries lacking the United Kingdom’s historic commitment to human rights – risks an open invitation for abuse in other parts of the world.”

Solidarity with The Guardian

WAN-IFRA said that political assurances about the Royal Charter scheme being a “hands off” approach by the Government “are somewhat undermined by the readiness of the UK government to intervene against the Guardian newspaper”.

The Guardian has been privately urged by senior Government officials to stop its publication of the leaked Snowden material to return the documents. Last year The Guardian agreed to destroy the hard drives containing the Snowden documents (pictured above), overseen by officials from GCHQ, after first ensuring copies were kept overseas.

Whilst travelling with some of the Snowden documents David Miranda, the partner of a Guardian journalist, was detained under the Terrorism Act at Heathrow Airport.

WAN-IFRA has drawn comparison between the impact of the Guardian Snowden revelations abroad, and their reception in the UK.

“The debate has resonated throughout the capitals of Latin America and Europe. It led to the introduction of resolutions at the United Nations and sparked a broad policy review in the United States that is playing out both in the courts and the political arena. The adage 'Who watches the watchers?' has become an international talking point at the highest levels.

“Except, in the United Kingdom, the debate has been rather more subdued. The Guardian, in revealing information disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has become the victim of a severe political backlash that has deeply shocked international observers and press freedom advocates.

“Pressured to hand over the Snowden data in the interests of national security, threatened with legal action and the prospect of having its reporting shut down, as well as undergoing the bizarre spectacle of government security officials overseeing the destruction of computer equipment in the newspaper’s basement, the publication and its journalism has been under intense pressure to self-censor.”

Defending The Guardian’s actions, WAN-IFRA said it “has been a frontline defence against what has been the most unprecedented recent attack on press freedom in an established democracy”.

“The international press has flocked to the publication’s side to denounce the pressure and supports its journalism, firmly regarded to be in the highest (global) public interest.

“WAN-IFRA’s mission to the United Kingdom was an expansion of this solidarity and a reaffirmation of the need to protect the values of investigative journalism for the sake of press freedom worldwide.”

The British Government needs to 'step back'

Tying together the two issues, WAN IFRA concludes:

There is growing evidence, reported by the WAN-IFRA membership, that the British approach – either in terms of regulation, or in the misuse of terrorism and national security legislation – is being used by repressive regimes to excuse their own practices towards the press. The British government must take steps to ensure that it upholds the high standards of press freedom expected from a leading democracy with a long tradition of guarding these values. It should reiterate clearly to the international community that it continues to support a free and independent press, and back these statements with discernable action at home to support rather than punish journalism.
Self-regulation remains the ideal model for press regulation in that it guarantees the least restrictions to the freedom of the press. The Royal Charter and the associated legislation that backs it up represent a level of statutory regulation for the press in the UK. This is a fundamental shift from the current system of regulation, and a departure from the principle of zero involvement of politicians in press regulation. The implications of this should be the subject of wider public consultation.
The UK government needs to step back from any further involvement – perceived or otherwise – in the regulation issue, and should seek to distance itself from any statements or actions that pressure the editorial independence of the press which could invite accusations of authoritarian control over public debate.
The UK press should be fully supported in its efforts to create and implement a credible framework for self-regulation. The goal should be reinforced to show how a model of self-regulation, without statutory underpinning, could work in the interests of the public and the profession of journalism.”

Director of campaign group Hacked Off Brian Cathcart said: “We are disappointed but not surprised that this group has failed to see past the cynical scaremongering by the big British newspapers about the Royal Charter.”

The WAN-IFRA press freedom delegation comprised:

  • Erik Bjerager – Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director, Kristeligt Dagblad, Denmark 
  • President, World Editors Forum
  • Vincent Peyrègne – CEO, WAN-IFRA
  • Zaffar Abbas – Editor-in-Chief, Dawn, Pakistan
  • Roger Parkinson – Former President and Publisher of the StarTribune/Former Publisher, CEO, and Chairman of the Toronto Globe and Mail / Past President, WAN-IFRA
  • Randi Øgrey – CEO, Mediebedriftenes Landsforening, Norway
  • Kjersti Løken Stavrum – General Secretary, Norwegian Press Association
  • Matti Kalliokoski – Senior editorial writer, Helsingen Sanomat, Finland
  • Jonathan Cooper – Vice President Media Relations and Employee Communi­cations, Digital First Media, USA
  • Ebbe Dal – European News Publishers’ Association (ENPA)
  • Andrew Heslop – Editor, Press Freedom, WAN-IFRA
  • Stephen Fozard – Legal Affairs and External Relations Manager, WAN-IFRA

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