Responding to Hacked Off

Some years back during a visit to the Gambia–the West African nation ruled by a thin-skinned and mercurial president, Yahya Jammeh–I holed up in the sweltering Interior Ministry and pressed officials to release imprisoned journalists and ease up on the country’s brutal media crackdown. The officials resisted, arguing that the press in Gambia was “reckless and irresponsible,” that it made unfounded accusations, published falsehoods, and destroyed people’s lives, and therefore the government had no choice but to step in and impose order and regulation.

I have heard variants of this argument from countless political and diplomatic leaders, from the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States to the Singaporean minister of law. I generally respond with the same argument: The media’s shortcomings–which are always present–never justify government intervention. Once government involvement is legitimized, it is easy to increase the pressure, which in turns weakens the media’s accountability role.

This is why the taint of government regulation in the United Kingdom is damaging to global press freedom advocacy, as we maintained in a letter we sent to British Prime Minister David Cameron back on April 2. Any statutory framework, even one designed to achieve such laudatory goals as protecting the regulator from government intervention and restricting the ability of Parliament to limit press freedom, sets a poor international precedent.

CPJ has not been active in the debate over how to address the complex and difficult problems identified in the Leveson inquiry. But we oppose any solution that requires Parliamentary action. This is a position of principle that we maintain around the world whether the alleged media misconduct is minor or massive; whether the proposed measures to counter these shortcomings are draconian or narrowly tailored; and whether the proposals are put forward in the Gambia, Venezuela, Singapore, or the U.K.

On April 4, Brian Cathcart, the executive director of Hacked Off, published an open letter criticizing CPJ’s position. He alleged that our letter to David Cameron contained inaccuracies and distortions. We take any such claims very seriously and have carried out a review. Our research has not found any misstatements, but rather a difference of perspective and emphasis.

For example, we believe that the political deal to produce a Royal Charter was done in haste. Cathcart disagrees, pointing to the 14-month-long Leveson inquiry. In our letter, we assert that “most argue” that media malpractice can be addressed through existing legislation. Cathcart notes that the 30,000- strong National Union of Journalists supports the Royal Charter.

Cathcart accuses us of showing little sympathy for the victims, and little concern for the “corrosive” impact of “repulsive” journalistic practices in Britain and the rest of the world. I would counter that if poor journalistic performance were a legitimate basis for government intervention in the media, then freedom of expression would be in grave danger in every country in the world. (Wait–it is).  

Of course, it is natural that Cathcart would come to a different conclusion, since he has a very different role. His brief is to advocate on behalf of the victims of media abuses, who unquestionably deserve our support and sympathy. Our role is to defend the basic principles of press freedom and the rights of journalists to report the news. I have no doubt that Cathcart believes a Royal Charter supported by statute is the best solution for Britain. But it is not the best solution for journalists around the world, and that is why we oppose it.