In a week in which we found ourselves transfixed by Labor’s latest version of pulp fiction – or, put another way, self- mutilation – we might have overlooked significant events elsewhere with implications for the free flow of information and ultimately the functioning of a Western democratic model on which our own system rests.

This is the Westminster model, which owes its resilience to contestable ideas freely disseminated by an unfettered media subject to the laws of the land, nothing more and nothing less.

But in a bleak night for press freedom – Britain’s new media laws were negotiated in the dead of night by an all-party cabal – the UK is reinstituting a regulatory system not seen since a requirement for newspapers to be licensed was abolished in 1695.

William III occupied the throne in an era marked by the ascendancy of the liberalising Whigs.

Three centuries later, a Tory government – in cahoots with the Liberal Democrats and in collusion with Labour – is seeking to reregulate newspapers via a commission established under a “royal charter”, thus obviating the need for parliamentary scrutiny.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy ’s stillborn efforts to impose a “public interest media advocate” on the Australian system have echoes in Britain’s response to fallout from a phone hacking scandal that engulfed its tabloids.

We should give thanks to the crossbenchers for stymying this foolishness, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the danger has passed.

Malcolm Turnbull may have mounted the barricades in the debate over the Conroy bills, but we should not overlook Turnbull’s own record of litigiousness against journalists and newspapers.

If the Coalition wanted to demonstrate a tangible commitment to freedom of expression, as opposed to opportunistically taking advantage of the political ineptitude of its opponents, it might consider championing a free speech amendment to the Constitution.

We’ll believe that when we see it.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to wrap the new press regulations in gossamer thread by insisting that the new system “supports our great traditions of investigative reporting and free speech” and “protects the rights of the vulnerable and innocent”.

Cameron tries to pretend this is not statutory regulation by virtue of it being enshrined in a “royal charter”, requiring a two-thirds vote in Parliament to alter its provisions.


What is being a proposed is a system of regulation by stealth. This will require purveyors of the published word – including operators of internet sites – to sign up to a new independent press regulator that will administer a new “code of conduct” to be written by a selected panel (selected by the board of the regulator).

Complainants will get what is termed “free and speedy arbitration” of their complaints and if it is found by the government-appointed “independent press regulator” that the “code of conduct” drawn up by the regulator’s board has been infringed, then corrections can be demanded; and not only corrections but also their placement and wording.

Publishers who do not sign up to the new regulatory code will be subject to exemplary damages of up to $1.45 million. The new regulations are coercive and will inevitably have a chilling effect on publishers and editors if we accept Lord Northcliff’s maxim that “news is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; and the rest is advertising”.

Reaction in Britain to the Cameron reforms of media regulation has been mixed but, as the implications seep in, displeasure builds across the journalistic fraternity and beyond.

Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins led the charge in a blistering column warning that “fining a journalist for unethical deeds is a charter for the vexatious”.

“It is madness,” he wrote. “Fines and compensation at the arbitration stage will put editors in thrall to chief executives and nervous publishers.”

Rupert Murdoch and the liberal Jenkins unusually find themselves on the same side of the argument in this case, Murdoch tweeting (ominously for Cameron): “Cameron showed true colours shocking many supporters.”

Criticism of the Cameron regulations has spread beyond the media. Sir Christopher Meyer, the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission – the equivalent of the Australian Press Council – was scathing. “The noise you hear is the applause of dictators around the world . . . This is licensing by any other name, the weapon of choice for many an authoritarian regime.”

The Spectator has announced it will boycott the new body. We say “good on you” to The Spectator.


The Australian Financial Review

A great article thank you

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