This is how newspapers will return to a licensing regime: as a compromise. In the UK Justice Leveson may recommend a onerous statutory arrangement for the regulation of the press. There have been reports over the last day that Cameron will defy his recommendations. All well and good. But the press themselves have a plan to stave off Leveson’s plans and they could have dire consequences. As the UK PressGazette reports:
The journalism industry has put forward a radically reformed version of self-regulation which retains the Press Complaints Commission but adds an investigation and compliance arm with powers to issue fines of up to £1m.
The plan, put forward by owners’ body Pressbof, also suggests tying publishers into membership of the new body by controlling access to press cards, Press Association copy and major advertisers.
That is, legal and industrial privileges tied to regulation. This is a form of licensing – a cartelisation of the press. What is in the interests of the existing press industry is not always in the interests of free speech or a healthy public sphere. In early modern England press licensing was used to give the government control over who could publish. Twenty-first century England has to watch out that new “accountability” mechanisms do not give existing publishers a competitive advantage over new entrants into the press.
We shouldn’t get too smug. The Finkelstein report suggested press privileges be restricted to those who sign up to the News Media Council. And in July, the IPA condemned secret negotiations between media proprietors and the government.