TOPIC GUIDE: Regulation of the Media

"The British press requires tougher regulation"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2013

AUTHOR: Ed Noel and Abigail Ross-Jackson

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Initially prompted by the News of the World Hacking Scandal, the culmination of Lord Leveson’s Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press was a report which advocated an independent regulator of the press with statutory underpinning [Ref: Guardian]. Despite the seemingly voluntary status of becoming a member of this regulatory body, and the current vagaries as to whether Leveson’s proposals will become policy, the principled question remains whether the press should be subject to any kind of independent regulation at all, with or without statutory underpinning. Whilst some commentators say any state regulation of the press fundamentally undermines the right to free speech, lobbying groups such as Hacked Off [Ref: Hacked Off] continue to argue that mildly regulating the practices of journalists and the content they produce is not an unreasonable demand [Ref: New Statesman]. So does ‘Hackgate’ reveal there is something rotten at the heart of the media? Should a new licensing watchdog keep the ‘beast’ in check? Or are we in danger, as journalist Nick Cohen argues, of throwing the baby out with the bath water [Ref: Spectator]? Do we need to be reminded of the historic gains of the struggle for press freedom in the midst of what has become a moralistic frenzy?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

How are the press currently regulated and what changes are proposed?
Since 1990 the British press has been regulated by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an independent watchdog which deals with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines [Ref: Press Complaints Commission]. The commission has no legal powers and relies on self-regulation. The Leveson Inquiry, however, has shown the PCC to be “Toothless” [Ref: Economist] and inadequate in challenging the misdemeanours of an all-powerful media. Following the hacking scandal, leaders from all three major political parties argued the PCC should be scrapped [Ref: Independent] and that a new independent supervisory body, with statuatory underpinning, be erected in its place [Ref: Spectator]. But others suggest that a drive towards the external statutory regulation of the media is a grave mistake, leaving the press wide open to state control. Whilst many journalists argue that a model of self-regulation remains the most appropriate way to keep the media in check, some argue even the ‘self-regulation’ of the PCC has had a censorious impact on the media and breeds a powerful sense of conformism that needs to be challenged [Ref: spiked]. From this point of view, a defence of a free media, however raucous and indeed offensive, is what is really needed.

Does a free press guarantee a good press?
Press freedom has historically been held up as a cornerstone of a liberal democracy, where the fourth estate [Ref: Wikipedia] acts as a check against our elected representatives, acting independently from them and so free of any obligations and better able to reveal the truth. More recently, the historic role of the press has been questioned, with some suggesting that an excessive freedom has given way to a different breed of journalist [Ref: Week] who are unable to distinguish between gossipy intrusions and investigations informed by the important journalistic principle of the ‘public interest’ [Ref: Telegraph]. The recent antics of ‘red top’ journalists, alongside a contemporary obsession with celebrity ‘tittle tattle’, has led some journalists to argue that an irresponsible culture of journalism has brought their trade into disrepute [Ref: Huffington Post]. What is needed, say some, is more drastic action and tougher regulation. But others detect more than a whiff of disdain in the criticism now being levelled at the tabloid press and their readers. Whilst few would defend the illegal methods of the phone hacking NotW journalists, some underline the important role played by ‘grubby’ hack journalists [Ref: New York Times], those who sniff around asking awkward questions and investigating dirty secrets. Let us not forget, say tabloid–defenders, it was also their ruthlessness that exposed the-then leading politician Jeffrey Archer as a perjurer [Ref: BBC News] or that helped to reveal the thalidomide scandal of the 1970s. Furthermore, it is argued that enforcing Leveson’s proposals undermines our ability to criticise other governments for not respecting press freedom when we might want to [Ref: Guardian].

What would tougher regulation mean for investigative journalism?
Some are worried tougher regulation would lead to journalists being wary of, or even abandoning, the pursuit of difficult stories in fear they might be punished for their actions. Breaking a big story can involve some rather underhand methods - sometimes even breaking the law – and journalists should not feel unable to continue to do so simply because one paper abused the system [Ref: The Sunday Times]. To tar all journalists and publications with the same brush because of the deplorable actions of one paper would be a backward step for investigative journalists. One journalist asks whether any self-respecting journalist would not have hacked into the phone of former News International Chief Executive, Rebekah Brooks, if they knew they would find evidence proving senior staff knew about the activity at the NotW [Ref: Fleet Street Fox]. The importance of a free and independent press, not controlled by the state, outweighs even the upset and scandal caused by the actions of some NotW journalists [Ref: spiked]. However, others point out that the so-called ‘journalism’ that was going on at the NotW is evidence enough that what counts as investigative journalism today has been debased and needs reforming. Far from aiding investigative journalism, a lax system of regulation, epitomised in this instance by the PCC, undermines both free speech and high quality journalism. Creating a clear picture of what counts as acceptable and unacceptable journalism would lead to higher standards and consequently better stories and less corruption in the industry.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Hacked to pieces

Economist 8 December 2012

Should the press be regulated by law?

Steve Vaughan MSN News 30 November 2012

Phone hacking: three weeks that made a revolution

Dan Sabbagh Guardian 22 July 2011


Leveson is being subverted by Cameron

Brian Cathcart Guardian 6 January 2013

Seize the chance for media reform

Martin Wolf Financial Times 14 July 2012

An in-depth look at the Leveson Inquiry

Lawrence Serewicz Post Desk 3 April 2012


Ditch Leveson - let’s get back to first principles

Mick Hume spiked 13 December 2012

Lord Justice Leveson and the Baby Killers

Nick Cohen Spectator 12 December 2012

Why the UK needs a self-regulated press

Sean Porter Planet Ivy 10 November 2012


The evolution of a weird super-story

Sean Bell Culture Wars 16 August 2011

Secrets and lies: Why investigative journalism is a force for good

John Witherow The Sunday Times 17 July 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The Leveson Inquiry Up to Date

Guardian 5 December 2012

How Lord Leveson’s proposed regulatory system would work

Tony Danker Guardian 29 November 2012

Leveson report: the speed read

Jane Martinson Guardian 29 November 2012

Phone Hacking Scandal

BBC News 25 November 2012

Stop the press: the media after Leveson

Battle of Ideas 21 October 2012

Media-bashing live!

Battle of Ideas 21 October 2012

How Should The Press Be Regulated In A Democratic Society?

Francis Harris The Student Journal of Law 3 January 2012

The dangers of ranging too widely

Independent 22 July 2011

Investigative journalism and breaking the rules

Mark Thompson BBC News 22 July 2011

Why We Need the Tabloids

Ryan Linkof New York Times 19 July 2011

Time to give regulators teeth to take on the tabloid bullies

Richard Lambert Financial Times 15 July 2011

From the Gutter, Into the Sewer

A C Grayling New York Times 8 July 2011

Gulag, anyone?

Fleet Street Fox 5 July 2011


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Stop the press: the media after Leveson

Battle of Ideas 21 October 2012

Media-bashing live!

Battle of Ideas 21 October 2012

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