Editorial: Media must remain free of state control

David Cameron
David Cameron

Unsurprisingly, David Cameron's defence of press freedoms in Britain has been met with considerable scepticism.

The prime minister who is arguing against greater regulation of the news media in the wake of a damning report on British press practices is the same prime minister who employed a former News of the World editor, now facing criminal charges, as his chief spin doctor and counted another former News of the World editor, also facing criminal charges, among his personal friends.

Nevertheless, even in Britain where the Leveson inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, has laid bare the sins of the tabloid press, there is merit to his arguments.

Lord Justice Leveson's 2000-page report paints an ugly picture. It is a picture of an industry in which some practitioners came to believe they, not civil authorities, were the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, that they were above the law, that public figures had no right to privacy and that what was good for the newspaper business was good for the country, whether or not it involved breaking the law, corrupting officials or cowing politicians.

However, as Lord Justice Leveson, also acknowledges, a free press is a cornerstone of democracy. It is a guardian of the interests of the public, a witness to important events and a champion of the little person.

Clamping down on press freedoms risks delivering the press into the arms of the state. That is in no-one's interests. The press must remain separate from the state if it is to serve as a public watchdog.

In Britain, change is inevitable. The only question is what form it will take. Lord Justice Leveson has recommended the establishment of a new independent press regulator backed by legislation. Mr Cameron and the media worry that that will lead to censorship and state control.

Here, the Law Commission has suggested the creation of a single regulator, partly funded by the state, for all news outlets. At present print media answer to the industry-funded Press Council and broadcast media to the state-funded Broadcasting Standards Authority.

The creation of a single regulator is an idea worth considering. Technological developments have rendered the old distinctions between the different types of media irrelevant.

However, all moves toward state regulation of the press should be resisted. The New Zealand media does not deserve to be tarred with the same brush as its British counterpart. News organisations here do not hack phones or bribe officials. Nor do they root through celebrities' rubbish bins.

The news media is not perfect. Occasionally it makes mistakes. However, remedies already exist to deal with breaches of the law and industry standards.

New Zealand must avoid over-reacting to events on the other side of the world.

To do its job, the press must be able to operate free from political interference.

The Dominion Post