How to regulate a free press

The FT’s (and Oxford’s) John Lloyd is a thoughtful commentator on media issues. He is also an early entrant into the debate about what should succeed the Press Complaints Commission with a modest proposal published in today’s FT. The nub of it is:

So we have a dilemma. State-backed regulation is seen as illiberal, and would be opposed (on liberal grounds) by all of the press. Yet self-regulation – paid for by the newspapers, dominated by News International and Associated Newspapers – has proved self-serving and supine.

The answer to this dilemma is not to create a new regulator with statutory backing. Instead it is to increase the group’s base of stakeholders – and to include in the number of institutions making up that base the government itself, as a representative of the public interest.

How would this work? When the PCC is replaced, a new organisation should be established, which I would call the Journalism Society, in a similar vein to the Law Society, the representative body for solicitors in England and Wales. This body should be open to being as global as the media are fast becoming. And it should be independent.

The Journalism Society’s stakeholders should include representatives of the government; the educational establishment; civil society (for instance relevant non-government organisations and policy institutes); industry and finance; and the news media. All of these would be committed, under its charter, to pluralist, independent, opinionated news media, working within the law.

All of which is fine and dandy, but avoids at least two thorny problems.

1. The most important is the question of sanctions. As I understand it, the Law Society (through its Solicitors Regulation Authority) can suspend a lawyer’s right to practise, just as the BMA General Medical Council (GMC)* can ‘strike off’ a medical practitioner.

Would the Journalism Society have similar powers? If so, how would it define a ‘journalist’ — always a tricky problem and one that has become insuperable in a networked age? Legal regulation works because, in the end, the state delegates the right to license legal practitioners. John Lloyd’s idea would only work if the state did likewise with journalists. I’d be very surprised if this is what he has in mind.

He claims that a Journalism Society would do a lot of good. For example,

It would allow journalism to take itself seriously as a trade claiming a democratic mandate. It could set and patrol ethical standards, monitor training and qualifications and above all be a forum within which journalists could map out the nature and future of their craft at a time of rapid change.

Agreed. But in the end effective self-regulation requires formidable sanctions that can be applied as a last resort. And that’s where the real problem lies. Regulation works in broadcasting because the state has a monopoly control of a scarce resource (electromagnetic spectrum). But — at least in democracies — the state doesn’t have monopoly control over the intellectual or ideological spectrum, which is why the very idea of regulation is so problematic.

2. The Law Society (and the BMA GMC) models work because they are tied to specific legal jurisdictions. John Lloyd’s vision of a Journalism Society that is “open to being as global as the media are fast becoming” means that it wouldn’t be confined to a particular jurisdiction, which in turn means that it would be totally ineffective.

*Correction: Thanks to Jonathan Rees for pointing out that it is the GMC and not the BMA which is supposed to regulate medical practitioners. But its difficulties and limitations merely serves to reinforce my argument.