Blog by John Miller

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Stop the presses

It was a newspaper that never met a line it wouldn't step over -- a fitting epitaph for Britain's News of the World.

The closure of the 168-year-old Sunday paper is the most spectacular suicide in the history of journalism. It was Britain's largest-circulated national paper, but even Rupert Murdoch knew it had to go when evidence emerged that its journalists routinely invaded people's privacy through phone hacking, corrupted police by making large payments to individual officers, and compromised fair trials by publishing reports that were likely to prejudice juries.

Its demise is no loss. Its editors and former editors, who seemed to stop at nothing to be first to publish sleaze and gossip, undoubtedly face jail terms for breaking the law. But lost amid the spectacular closure is the impact this sorry affair will have on journalism itself, even in Canada where we thankfully do not have such abysmal papers or Murdoch as an owner.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said lawbreakers will be prosecuted to the full extent. But he also promised a second, wider inquiry into the "culture, practices and ethics of the British press." And this should interest us all.

According to The Guardian, Cameron promised this inquiry should be presided over by independent experts "without any motive but to seek the truth and clean up the press ... In particular, they should look at how our newspapers are regulated and make recommendations for the future."

Cameron said press freedom was an "essential component of our democracy and our way of life," but that did not mean "the press should be above the law."

He took particular aim at his country's Press Complaints Commission, a national body set up by the press to enforce ethical standards and regulate the performance of reporters and editors. The News of the World was a member. It was investigated, and cleared, of earlier allegations of phone hacking and bribery. The head of the commission now admits it was lied to.

Cameron said it was "now clear to everyone that the way the press is regulated today is not working. Let's be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed. In this case – in the hacking case – it was, frankly, completely absent....There is a strong case for saying it is institutionally conflicted, because competing newspapers judge each other."

Self-regulation, in other words, does not work. It's the same flawed principle that led to the creation, in Canada, of provincial press councils. They exist in every province except Saskatchewan, although anyone who studies their performance quickly concludes that newspapers here are similarly incapable of policing themselves.

Press councils in Canada hear few cases, they are cumbersome to use, most complaints are dismissed, most readers do not know they even exist, their members are mostly friends of the newspapers that pay the bills, and some prominent publications, like the National Post and Maclean's magazine, are not members. The strongest censure a press council can mete out is to require offending publications to publish its adjudications.

What would work better -- and Cameron certainly pointed in this direction -- is a body independent of government and the press that would strike a balance between an individual's right to privacy and what is in the public interest. That sounds on the surface something like a print equivalent to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the arms-length federal body that licenses and regulates Canadian television and radio.

But that raises troubling questions. Do we want our newspapers licensed by the state, even at arm's length? Would that lead to journalists being licensed too? On what terms? Could they be fined, or have their licenses suspended? What standards of responsibility would be demanded of the top editors or news executives who direct the journalists and control their budgets?

I'm waiting for the cries of outrage from top editors, who have traditionally refused to even discuss any of these questions seriously. But now that the press has failed so spectacularly in Britain, the press everywhere is coming under greater scrutiny. 

Public opinion demands it.