The Economist calls for tougher press regulation

By Satyam Pradhan 

The Economist is not known for its “totalitarian”, “repressive” or “liberticidal” views. Far from it. In fact the paper is rather known as a liberal publication supporting western values on democracy and the economy. In this week’s issue (July 16-22, 2011), The Economist argues in an editorial that instead of the Press Complaints Commission, “a new press body should be set up free from financial dependence on the industry, with a tougher code of conduct, powers to investigate compliance with it and others to penalize lapses from it. Ideally that would be coupled with reform of Britain’s libel laws, which have done nothing to restrain the tabloids but have sheltered the rich and powerful (including newspaper tycoons) from investigation.”

The paper says that there is a greater public interest in having the British press regulated in a fair way. “Newspapers currently answer to the Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory body set up by the industry in 1991. The PCC is meant to enforce a code of conduct of its own devising, and deal with grievances brought to its attention; but its attempts to hold the tabloids to account have been pathetic. Many critics unsurprisingly want Britain to move to statutory control.”

Whilst The Economist believes that statutory control would be a mistake, it goes on to call for a tougher body set up by the industry itself.

The arguments made by The Economist are very pertinent to the debate, spanning over several years, we have had in Mauritius about press regulation.

This debate can be summed up as follows: The press like most sectors of the economy needs regulation. The regulation can be made and enforced by a credible and independent self-regulatory organisation. But if the industry is unwilling or unable to agree on self-regulation, then a statutory regulatory framework should be considered.

In Mauritius the industry as a whole has never agreed on an industry-wide regulatory framework. Some papers including the Mauritius Times have supported a PCC set up by the press itself.

The Government’s manifesto commitment to enlarge the powers of the Independent Broadcasting Authority which regulates the electronic media to an overview of the ethical conduct of the print media was and still is an alternative to self-regulation. Should the media industry set up with its own press body “free from financial dependence on the industry, with a tougher code of conduct, powers to investigate compliance with it and others to penalize lapses from it” as proposed by The Economist, the Government will not need to introduce statutory control. However Government will have, again as suggested by The Economist for Britain, to review our libel laws and provisions of the Criminal Code relating to defamation and publishing false news.

* Published in print edition on 22 July 2011

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