British journalists concerned by regulation, hostile climate

As Alan Rusbridger appears Tuesday before the Home Affairs committee of the U.K. Parliament to give evidence regarding the Guardian‘s coverage of surveillance activities by the U.S. and U.K. governments, British journalists and analysts say that newspaper’s legal troubles are worrying in large part because they come against the backdrop of increased regulation and scrutiny of the wider industry.

Guardian Editor Rusbridger will be questioned under oath by members of Parliament conducting a larger investigation on counter-terrorism. His presence was requested by a former Conservative Defense Minister, Liam Fox, in order to investigate the potential “damage” the Guardian may have caused to British national security with its reporting on the activities of the U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart, the General Communications Headquarters.

Another member of parliament, Julian Smith, was more specific in a letter to the Guardian‘s publishers in October. “We have serious concerns that the GCHQ files and documentation that we understand you duplicated and sent to both The New York Times and foreign bloggers, contain information, which, if accessed by terror groups or unfriendly or hostile foreign powers, could risk British national security,” the conservative parliamentarian wrote.

Its reporting on the material leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has focused the authorities’ attention in the Guardian. Prime Minister David Cameron suggested the London newspaper had damaged national security and made an alarming threat–not carried out so far–of prior restraint. But several British journalists and analysts contacted by CPJ expressed a wider concern in light of the establishment of a new statutory press watchdog by royal charter on October 30.

“There is already a chilling effect on journalism,” said Charlie Beckett, a journalist and director of Polis, the media think-tank at the London School of Economics (LSE). “Some of this might be a good thing if it means papers hesitate before publishing lies and extreme attacks on people. However, there are already real indications that politicians and other people with power are using the prospect of tougher regulation to pressurize newsrooms. The combination of a business crisis plus Leveson means that people think newspapers are weaker–that’s probably true–and so they are pushing back,” he told CPJ.

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Rusbridger stressed this relationship between recent examples of pressure on the Guardian–such as the arrest under terrorism legislation of a courier for the paper, David Miranda, or the forced destruction of computer hard-drives–with tighter press regulation following investigation of the News of the World hacking scandal by judge Brian Leveson. “In the past five months a number of disturbing things have happened…. All this has happened against a background of new press regulation in which [British Prime Minister] David [Cameron] is claiming the press has nothing to worry about from increased regulation involving his royal charter. Some of this behavior is clearly designed to be intimidatory and/or chilling,” he told The Washington Post.

The press watchdog, whose establishment was agreed by British political parties, will have power to impose large fines on U.K. publishers and demand apologies from newspapers. Legislation was also passed to allow judges to award exemplary damages against publishers that do not accept the new regulatory system. But the newspaper industry rejects the government’s watchdog and has launched its own, the Independent Press Standards Organization (Ipso). A standoff has ensued. “They have secured a royal seal, but failed to clinch a deal,” the Guardian said of political parties in an editorial. In its own editorial after Queen Elizabeth adopted the royal charter, the conservative newspaper The Times described the government’s regulator as “a recognition body that nobody recognizes, a system of voluntary regulation without volunteer.”

Most analysts agree that the industry’s version will become effective sooner or later. “The newspapers’ own regulator will be the one to emerge strongest because it’s the only one that most newspapers will join. There is little appetite–or power–for politicians to force them to join the parliamentary royal charter organization,” the LSE’s Beckett told CPJ.

Meanwhile, several beat reporters and journalists in British newsrooms said they see the battle as a matter for publishers and editors. “I don’t think people take it that seriously, which may of course be a mistake–we take a free press completely for granted, so we are not sensitive to threats,” said Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, veteran economics editor for the Daily Telegraph.

Given the animosity of most national and regional newspapers toward the statutory watchdog, the government has hinted to a future reconciliation between the official system and the industry’s self-regulator. But whatever the final framework, a malaise has spread in the British press. “I am completely mystified by where things now stand; I don’t think the world is about to end, but am always suspicious of politicians meddling with the press,” Simon Jenkins, a Guardian columnist and former Times and Evening Standard editor, told CPJ. “I just hope it degenerates into a mess and nothing much gets done,” he said.

Some aspects of the regulatory framework set up by the royal charter particularly concern an industry struggling with the impact of the financial crisis and the digital revolution. The arbitration mechanism, designed as a non-judicial conflict resolution tool, could lead to professional compensation lawyers, known as claim farmers, “to seek big money from newspapers for breaches of the industry’s code of ethics,” the Guardian reported. More recently, a Labour party candidate urged union bosses to use new press regulations to launch class action complaints against newspapers who criticize them, after the Daily Mail exposed alleged bullying tactics of Unite, a leading British trade union with close links to the Labour Party, the Mail reported.

“I don’t think the average British journalist is terribly worried with politicians interfering directly with the press; they think democracy is strong enough in this country,” said David Randall, a former editor for The Independent. “But the atmosphere has changed after the royal charter was adopted, and the real fear is the possibility that a mechanism that’s plausible and reasonable on the surface could be used by campaigners and activists in harmful ways that no one intended,” Randall told CPJ.