Don't take away the will to make headlines

Statutory regulation will remove the power of the press to expose and hold to account people and situations which have and could change the world

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Can we live without headlines?
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Nic Conner
On 18 March 2013 12:41

Today parliament is working out how best to end our free press. This can only be a bad thing.

The main argument for statutory regulation is to stop the risk-taking, all-or-nothing culture of headline making. This is what our parliamentarians feel caused the phone hacking scandal.

You will note that this is a similar argument to that used by the left to justify introducing more red tape to the banking sector; the key difference being that journalists involved in the phone hacking scandal broke the law and will face jail time.  

Of course, the call for statutory regulation, in whatever form, is nothing new. Those who’ve seen the leftist wet dream that is 90s TV drama ‘Mr White goes to Westminster’ (about an independent MP, based on Martin Bell, who, give or take, brings in the proposals we now see in the Leveson Report) will know this well.

But the emergence of this latest call to tie down the press made its comeback into the mainstream the day the Sun left Labour and went over to David Cameron, prompting a union leader to rip up a copy of the paper on stage at Labour conference. Vengeance was only a matter of time.

The fact is, today’s assault on freedom is driven on by the far left and by celebrities looking to hide; but it is being established by reasonable MPs who feel a culture of risk taking has made the printed media a hot bed for illegality.

The argument goes that broadcast media, already under heavy statutory regulation, does not dabble in this risk-taking culture and thus behaves itself. It follows, therefore, that if the print media was under similar regulation this would end the all-or-nothing culture that has, ironically, made so many headlines of its own.

Put simply, this is true; but no less dangerous.

The headline-driven culture is a good thing. It is this culture in the print media which drives journalists to go out and take risks; it is what breaks stories. The broadcast media reports on news but it never breaks or makes it.

It is the high risk stories which change the world; it is the high risk stories which hold people to account; it is the high risk stories that parliamentarians and celebrity lovies prefer not to read. And for good reason.

MPs’ expenses, Jimmy Savile, the Thalidomide scandal, sports stars doped up on drugs, even the phone hacking scandal – all are high risk stories, broke by the printed press. There is a reason the broadcast media was not at the forefront on these stories: regulation..

If we had the proposed regulation in place when David Walsh was pursuing Lance Armstrong, would the latter have got away with his sins? There is no way the Sunday Times could've let David Walsh’s brave journalism even reach the draft stage if there was statutory regulation; what would be the point? Fines and retractions would lie in waiting.

Ultimately, if the state has any authority over our press it will end the risk-taking culture and dampen the will to make headlines. With that disappears the power of the press to expose and hold to account people and situations which have and could change the world.    

Nic Conner is Campaign Director of The Bow Group. You can follow him on Twitter @niconner

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