Lords Communications Committee advised to abandon press freedom in FLJS policy briefing

23 October 2012

A policy brief published today by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society makes the case that we should abandon the concept of  'press freedom'€™ in favour of a broader understanding of freedom of expression that better reflects today's digital media environment.

The policy brief, entitled The End of Press Freedom, was published by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society as part of a series of four policy briefs presented to the House of Lords on Thursday, in a debate brought by one of the authors, Baroness Onora O'Neill, on the relationship between media standards and media regulation.

In the policy brief, the author Dr Damian Tambini, Director of the Media Policy Project at the London School of Economics, argues that the term 'press freedom'€™ is increasingly used to protect the self-interest of one of many converging media sectors, to block reforms, and close down debate about the appropriate form of media accountability.

Dr Tambini presented the argument to the House of Lords Communications Committee as part of his oral evidence to their new inquiry into media convergence and its public policy impact, which was launched in August to look at modern day media convergence, and how public policy may need to do more to adapt and reform in its wake.

Tambini argues that, "if we free policy debate from the constraining notion of freedom of the press, but apply stringent tests of freedom of expression, we are more likely to achieve a policy settlement that stands the test of time"

The policy brief is the fourth and final such publication to emerge from a Panel Discussion held at Wolfson College Oxford in May, entitled Redirecting Fleet Street: Media Regulation and the Role of Law. Podcasts and policy briefs by panellists including the political philosopher and crossbench Peer Baroness Onora O’Neill; former Managing Editor of The Times George Brock; and Lara Fielden, formerly of the BBC and Ofcom, have been published on the FLJS website over recent months.

This latest policy brief demonstrates that the terms 'freedom of expression' and '€˜freedom of the press'€™ have often been used interchangeably, owing to the historical pre-eminence of the printing press as the principal information distribution platform. Dr Tambini develops the thesis that the rise of broadcasting and mass access to the internet has fundamentally altered the nature and value of press freedom, since state control of printing as a technology would have a less decisive impact on the free circulation of ideas in society.

Whilst Tambini concedes that the media are arguably one of the key guarantors of good political governance in serving accountability and playing a watchdog role, in his view, self-regulation of the press as overseen by the Press Complaints Commission has palpably failed. If the press are allowed too much freedom, they can also undermine good governance, as the Leveson Inquiry has heard, through the abuse of media privileges and the trading of policy favours in return for favourable coverage.

Tambini concludes by predicting that in the future, media regulation will not be determined by delivery platform. Instead, he makes recommendations for a new regulatory framework in which size of enterprise, its importance in opinion formation, and its ability to effectively self-regulate, rather than medium of delivery, should be the guiding principles that determine the scope and nature of regulation.

The four policy briefs published by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society will also be presented to the House of Lords on Thursday, in a debate brought by one of the authors, Baroness Onora O'Neill, that the House takes note of the relationship between media standards and media regulation.

Download:

The End of Press Freedom
Damian Tambini