The News of the World phone hacking scandal continues to dominate headlines. The outrage that followed it saw several calls for further regulation of the press. However, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, has stressed that in protecting privacy, caution is needed to maintain freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Lord Patten has said that he does not believe that a legislative framework would be an appropriate form of regulation of the press. He considers that such a legislative structure risks having adverse effects on free speech and the effective operation of newspapers.
Lord Patten is convinced that any fundamental change of media practices must derive from within the profession itself. The issue is one that is to be considered by Lord Justice Leveson in his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media.
In a speech at the Society of Editors’ annual conference, Lord Patten said, “Statutory regulation of the press would in my view be more than wrong-headed, it would pose a real danger to the public discourse that underpins our democracy. So the responsibility to ensure high standards of professionalism rests with journalists, their editors and their proprietors.”
Lord Patten believes that the press should be governed by some form of self-regulatory framework. He considers that such a structure would ensure that the “symbiotic” relationship between different news agencies was maintained, whilst preventing them from engaging in any criminal behaviour.
“Free speech… would truly be damaged if a single group of people, beholden to and perhaps even appointed by politicians, were to have the power to decide what should or should not be published.”
Moreover, he also stressed that, “Like free markets, freedom of speech can produce harmful effects if it is completely unlimited.”
“It’s not helpful if newspapers cite ‘free speech’ as a blanket justification for every story, every intrusion, every piece of celebrity tittle-tattle, no matter what the circumstances.”
It is not clear whether the Chairman of the BBC Trust will appear before the Leveson Inquiry, which was set up by the Prime Minister earlier this year. The aim of the two-part inquiry is to consider, and make recommendations, regarding the regulation and governance of the press. Essentially, how this can be effectively achieved without jeopardising the freedom of the press and free speech.
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