Advice for Britain's new National Press Regulator

In the wake of recent scandals, Britain's politicians want to regulate the country's naughty media. Our own Washington News Council might make a better model.
In the wake of recent scandals, Britain's politicians want to regulate the country's naughty media. Our own Washington News Council might make a better model.

England may soon have its own NPR: the “National Press Regulator.” Sound scary? It is.

The Economist calls it a “rotten deal,” arguing that the British NPR would be “set up by a royal charter, underpinned by statute, and monitored by a new recognising body, whose first set of members will be appointed by yet another committee, itself partly government-appointed …[N]ewspapers that fail to sign up will be subject to harsh exemplary damages.”

Can you imagine the outrage if anyone proposed that in the United States?

Granted, there is no First Amendment in Great Britain. And many British journalists have acted execrably over the years. The recent phone-hacking scandals and alleged bribes of police and politicians by tabloid newspapers seeking sensational stories were appalling. About 60 British journalists now face charges.

The abuses led to a lengthy, government-mandated “Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press” led by Lord Justice Leveson. Last November, after 16 months and $6 million, the Leveson Commission issued its four-volume, 2,000-page report, which the Guardian called “longer than Harry Potter, shorter than Proust, denser than Tolstoy.”

Months of debate followed. This week, leaders of Britain’s three big political parties — Labor, Liberal and Conservative — finally unveiled a “deal” that includes most of Leveson’s recommendations. But rather than having Parliament pass a law to regulate the press, as Leveson proposed, British politicians want it done by Royal Charter.

Not surprisingly, the British press rebelled. Lord Black, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, called the proposal "a constitutional nightmare” and “alien to decades of English law.” Many other British press leaders are similarly opposed, although some seem amenable.

I’d like to offer a solution that could save them all a lot of trouble, a solution that’s already in place and working here in the U.S.

The Brits should create a national press council modeled after our very own Washington News Council. [Full disclosure: I am currently the president and executive director of the Washington News Council.]

Such a council would be effective for several reasons:

First, it’s independent. The Leveson report said that “an independent regulatory body should be established,” whose “Board and Chair should all be appointed by a fair and open process, comprise a majority that are independent of the press, and include a sufficient number of people with experience of the industry who may include former editors and senior or academic journalists.”

That’s precisely what the Washington News Council has done. We were formed in 1998 by a group of concerned citizens, including several prominent journalists. No media bosses or elected officials are on our council. Our first, 20-member board was assembled from nearly 200 nominations statewide. Many private citizens, including working journalists, former editors, academic, business and nonprofit leaders have served on our board over the past 15 years. We are truly independent in membership, governance and funding. Our support comes from foundations, corporations, individuals, associations and media organizations. We accept no public dollars because we don’t want any government control of news media.

Second, our News Council sets and maintains high standards. Leveson said the new body should “hear individual complaints against its members about breach of its standards and order appropriate redress while encouraging individual newspapers to embrace a more rigorous process for dealing with complaints internally; take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches and impose appropriate sanctions.”

The goals of the Washington news Council track very well with the Leveson recommendations. Our mission is “to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by creating a forum where the public and the news media can engage each other in examining standards of journalistic ethics and accountability.”

We take our mission very seriously, actively promoting high standards and best practices. We cannot “impose appropriate sanctions” on media organizations that violate best practices, because we have no legal authority — and don’t want any. But we do sometimes offer informal mediation to seek compromises.

Finally, the Council reviews and mediates complaints. The WNC regularly fields complaints against news media organizations — print, broadcast and online. (We get about a dozen inquiries a year.) We won’t accept a complaint until the complainant has tried and failed to obtain satisfactory response from the offending publication. All complainants must sign a waiver pledging not to sue for libel or defamation. If the complaint is legitimate, we ask for redress in the form of corrections, clarifications, follow-up stories or public apologies. Failing that, we may try to mediate the dispute.

If mediation fails, we hold a public hearing and invite both parties to make their case. Media participation is entirely voluntary. Our council members carefully review the complaints and vote — in public — on their merits. The hearings are broadcast statewide by TVW, and often attract other media coverage.

For recent examples of these public reviews, see the Leschi School Community vs. KIRO7 Eyewitness News and Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW94.9 cases on our website. In both instances, we invited the public to vote along with the News Council, thus democratizing media oversight.

The Washington News Council is no panacea. But if citizens of England want ideas on how best to respond to the Leveson report, they should consider the WNC model. It sure beats the new NPR “deal.”

John Hamer is president and executive director of the Washington News Council, which he co-founded in 1998.


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