More heat than light in the debate about UK press regulation

Report by Tim Dawson

The continuing discussion of the Leveson Inquiry proposals has thrown up a number of abiding mysteries – which were sharply highlighted, but entirely unresolved by at the Soho Sceptics meeting last night at London’s Conway Hall.

To consider the case for regulation of the press defined in statute, Nick Cohen and Suzanne Moore (against) faced Natalie Fenton and Evan Harris (for). Neither side had much new to say.  Cohen and Moore (columnists on The Observer and The Guardian respectively) argued that any regulation would tend to lead to government interference in the media, that newspapers were on their way out, that outrages that sparked Leveson were illegal anyway and that in an era when ‘anyone can be a journalist’ newspapers should be no more regulated than bloggers.

Fenton and Harris (Goldsmiths academic and former Liberal Democrat MP) tried to persuade the capacity audience of over 300 that a form of regulation was possible that would not inhibit free speech, that the BBC was evidence of this and that the lack of plurality in the British media was a far more pressing issue than control of a narrow elite.

As theatre, the juxtaposition was intriguing.  Cohen and Moore were passionate and combustible and were worth listening to just for their off-the-cuff curios.  Cohen asserted that ‘Murdoch and Dacre are  on their way out, yesterday’s men’.  Its an odd contention from a writer so closely associated with a media organisation that has shown the catastrophic commercial ineptitude of The Guardian/Observer.  Still, if Moore is right that what sells newspapers is sport, horoscopes and her opinions, then all she need do is add some astrological element to her columns and Alan Rusbridger can abandon his current plans to sack a fifth of the journalists working at Kings Place.

Their opponents cool, and apparently forensic approach was considerably less fun – but my impression was that speaking to an audience in which there were but but a handful of journalists, they had the larger part of the room on their side.

Like the antis, however, they did this without mention of a single scrap of evidence to demonstrate the effects, baleful or otherwise, of press regulation, however it is organised.  There are press councils in around sixty other countries, but their work went unmentioned.  Both sides quoted from the US constitution, but neither shared any knowledge of how this impacts on that country’s media.

In the Republic of Ireland, for example, the country that is most like the UK, there is a press council, underwritten by statute.  Some aspect of its work might have provided the killer blow for either side, but like the rest of the Leveson debate, the panelists preferred argument from first principles rather than dipping into the murky waters of empiricism.

At the end of the debate, the capable chair, Helen Lewis from The New Statesman, asked the audience how many had changed their minds are as a result of the debate – perhaps a dozen raised their hands.  That’s hardly surprising.  If the platform speakers demonstrated anything, this is a debate in which neither side is listening to the other.

 

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