Britain's three major political parties have agreed on a new system of regulating newspapers in the aftermath of shocking invasions of privacy by some tabloid journalists. In this case, unanimity doesn't equal wisdom. The London-based Index on Censorship was right to call the new system a "sad day for press freedom in the U.K."
The new arrangement will implement recommendations of a prominent British judge who conducted an inquiry into press conduct after a "phone-hacking" scandal in which journalists illegally accessed information from the telephones of celebrities, politicians and a kidnapped girl who was later found dead. The commission had proposed a new regulatory body to oversee Britain's newspapers; in the end, rather than having Parliament create one by statute, Queen Elizabeth II will issue a charter establishing a "recognition body" that will certify a new regulatory commission. That panel in turn will be able to direct newspapers to publish corrections and impose fines of up to a million pounds for unethical behavior. Newspapers that choose not to take part in the regulatory process will be subject to additional "exemplary" damages if they lose libel or invasion-of-privacy lawsuits.
The use of a royal charter, rather than a statute, doesn't alter the fact that the government is involving itself in regulation of the press. (Actually, Parliament will be involved in the system because it will legislate terms under which the charter can be revised.) Reporters and editors now must look over their shoulders not only at the new regulatory body but also at politicians who have demonstrated that they are willing to use the power of government to rein in the press. These are the same politicians whom journalists are in the business of covering.