UK press regulation

Regulating the Press

Steve Hewlett explores the fraught history of attempts to regulate the British press.
As the British press braces itself for the Leveson Report, Steve Hewlett explores past attempts to regulate it - or encourage it to regulate itself.

Steve begins by discovering how offending publishers were treated in the seventeenth century, when if you were flogged down Fleet St to the pillory you were getting off relatively lightly.

With the help of original documents from the period, he traces how, once licensing was lifted in 1695, the ideal of the free British press was born, only for real journalists and publishers to find themselves encumbered by taxes, libel laws and political influence.

In the 1920s, the rising divorce rate gave journalists ample opportunity to report the salacious sexual details revealed in the consequent flurry of court cases. 

After a long period when governments had largely given up trying to regulate the press, the hardline Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks moved a law to ban such unpleasantness.

However, it was only after the Second World War that there was a new series of attempts not to regulate the press by law, but to find a way to avoid that - by fostering self-regulation.

Steve finds out why the post-war period saw no less than three Royal Commissions on the Press - only for these to be followed by widespread objections in the 1980s that the press was out of control. 

Instances like the publication of a rape victim's photograph and some of the reporting of the Hillsborough disaster, along with political objections to the invasion of privacy, were followed by yet another Inquiry, led by Sir David Calcutt.

And so, in 1990, the Government announced that the press was being given one final chance to make self-regulation work - or legal controls would follow.

But that never happened. The Calcutt Report led to the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission, but was then shelved - a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Lord Justice Leveson.

Producer: Phil Tinline.

Some press 'added to the distress experienced'

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has said the evidence in the Kerslake Report shows "it is clear that the behaviour of some, but by no means all of the media, added to the distress experienced by some families of victims".

The body's chief executive Matt Tee said:

The press has a narrow path to tread between reporting accurately and sympathetically on tragedies on the public’s behalf and respecting the feelings of those most directly affected.

It is clear that the behaviour of some, but by no means all of the media, added to the distress experienced by some families of victims.

The Editors’ Code requires journalists to approach bereaved family members with sympathy and discretion, to ensure their reports are accurate and to respect people’s privacy and stop their approaches when asked to do so.

We will be looking at what more we can do to support victims, families and the agencies that work with them as well as making sure that IPSO-regulated publishers are aware of their obligations and responsibilities.