The government’s plan to regulate the press is deeply flawed

 
Allister Heath

WRONG, wrong, wrong. That, I’m afraid, is the only way to describe the shameful decision last night by the Privy Council to institute a system of statutory regulation for publishers.

The move confuses the need for states to seek to enforce the rule of law across all industries – for which new rules are usually not needed – with some politicians’ urge to manipulate and subjugate every part of the economy. We used to understand this crucial distinction but no longer do, which is one reason why there is so much popular support for the new press regulator.

But while government control is always a bad idea – it has already turned the energy market into a costly mess, for example, and the bonus cap imposed on banks will merely force up base pay and make the financial system much riskier – it is especially dangerous in publishing and the media, which can only play their full and proper role when they are unconstrained by either conformism or the fear of powerful people.

Regulatees never really dare to criticise their regulators in the same way as independent outsiders can. As Winston Churchill, who would have been shocked by yesterday’s antics, famously put: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”

The new set-up is dangerously close to being a return to the licensing of the press, an absurd, authoritarian practice last adopted during the English Civil War in 1643 and thankfully repealed in 1695. This time around, publishers will be free to remain outside the system – but once it is up and running, and an official, government-approved regulator has been set up, dissidents will be hit by “exemplary” damages whenever they made a mistake, rather than the more reasonable damages if they choose to operate inside the system.

This crucial latter provision is likely to fall foul of the European Courts of Human Rights – and ought to be thrown out by any sensible human rights code. The new regulator or in fact any of this would stand no chance in the US, where it would be laughed out of court under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects free speech.

Meanwhile, the world is moving on and traditional publishers are losing much of their power, squeezed between the astonishing growth of the likes of Facebook and the licence-fee financed BBC. Facebook’s numbers out yesterday – ironically, on the day that Britain’s pressed became controlled by statute for the first time in 318 years – were remarkable.

The social network’s daily active users reached 728m for September 2013, up 25 per cent year-over-year; monthly active users were 1.19bn, up 18 per cent, with booming mobile use accounting for more than half of those figures. Astonishingly, the company is still growing daily and monthly usage even in the US and Europe, which many thought would be saturated by now, thanks to people checking the site on smartphones and tablets. The numbers are 144m daily users in North America and 188m in Europe. Turnover in the third quarter hit $2.02bn, up by 60 per cent, with advertising revenues up 60 per cent and mobile advertising now worth 49 per cent of revenues. There was only big, but important caveat: usage by the youngest teens fell, a revelation which hurt the stock in after hours trading.

But the big picture is clear, which makes it all the more bizarre that in an age when hundreds of millions of people have become self-publishers, the British government no longer believes in a free press. As step backwards go, this one is truly shocking.

allister.heath@cityam.com
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath