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‘State Approved’ or Standing Up for Independence?

In the second article in our series where we seek to redress the balance on some of the key press regulation issues, we spoke to leading academic Eric Barendt for his views on the process of recognition.

As legal arguments begin over the recognition process, we asked Eric Barendt, one of the world’s foremost media academics and the leading researcher into freedom of speech and related constitutional and legal questions, for his take on the question of whether the recognition process represents a system of ‘state approval’.

Barendt considers that the system of recognition put in place by the Royal Charter on self-regulation should be viewed in the same light as defamation legislation. He says, “The system of recognition and approval is not in any sense ‘state regulation’ or ‘state approval’ just as the legislation around defamation and contempt of court is not.  The press has never suggested that the Defamation Act 2013 limits their freedom to report.  What the press dislike is any system of press regulation which has some sort of independent approval and which is not subject to their own control.  The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which is perhaps a slight improvement on the old PCC, is still a system of purely self-regulation.  It is therefore in no sense independent.  

“What Lord Justice Leveson recommended was, what I prefer to call, a system of voluntary independent regulation, with some degree of approval from an independent body which can, and has in the case of IMPRESS, examined the detail of that independence.  Leveson recognised that scrutiny – auditing and checking by an independent body – was required in order to give the public confidence.”

“For myself the argument that the press puts forward that the recognition process is some kind of state regulation is really complete nonsense.”
Leading academic Eric Barendt

Barendt considers the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) as a transparent, neutral and objective body. He says, “The recognition panel is a wholly independent body, members of which were appointed, not by the state or Government, but by an independent appointments panel.  IPSO could of course apply for recognition by the PRP.  It does not currently meet the required standards of independence, but it could do so if it so wished.”

When comparing the UK system of press regulation with others from around the World, Barendt points to Germany and France as examples of where more stringent state legislation still does not affect press freedom to call power to account. He says, “In Germany most of the newspapers are governed by laws which are made by the state not the federal government and there are specific press laws in France, but I do not think it’s plausible to say German and French newspapers are not fully free, in the same way that we don’t think the Defamation Acts constrain press freedom here. 

“OFCOM operates under statutory powers within the Communications Act of 2003, which means that the BBC and commercial broadcasters are substantially regulated, but this in no way means that broadcasters cannot hold power to account – that is the job of news organisations everywhere.”