“A press which does not regulate itself – but which is regulated by the government and the courts – cannot be a free press.”
Lord Wakeham, former chairman of the UK Press Complaints Commission, to the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe, Dublin: October 2000
In a perfect world there would be no regulation of a free press. The whole concept is, to purists at least, a contradiction in terms. But the 21st century reality is that there is no absolute morality of the sort envisioned by 19th century social philosophers. Neither the world nor the press makes any claim to being perfect and the need for some sort of regulation has been widely accepted.
The dilemma lies in constructing a regulatory regime that minimises the mutual pain. It must enshrine the essential rights of the individual - the right not to be falsely accused, misreported, traduced or suffer invasions of privacy without reason - without trampling on the vital essence of press freedom: the right to free expression, the right to be fearless and robust, the right to investigate and expose and, indeed, the right to be wrong. There can be no perfect freedom that does not uphold the right to be imperfect.
The CPU Media Trust fully supports the concept of a self-regulatory system for the media throughout the Commonwealth as did its predecessor, the Commonwealth Press Union. The CPU worked closely with the Press Complaints Commission in the UK over many years to take this message out across the Commonwealth when it was found that the UK organisation was the aspirational level for many countries.
Through a series of strategic regional workshops across the Commonwealth in 2001-02, the philosophy and practicality of self-regulation was discussed and debated with editors, publishers, media practitioners, academics and lawyers. This exercise resulted in an important report "Imperfect Freedom" which gave a snapshot of the situation at that time. This report is available on this website as a pdf.
The outcome of the exercise was interesting and many countries started to consider the possibility of setting up a self-regulatory body. This was particularly successful in Sri Lanka where, after many years of planning, the Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission was launched in 2003, and continues to this day. Sadly, an uncompromising and non-media friendly Government is doing its best to reintroduce the previously moribund and ineffectual statutory press council. At this point, it has not succeeded.
Other countries are moving towards this idea, but many are curtailed by lack of funding. For a self-regulatory system to work, it needs to be funded almost entirely by the industry itself and this is proving difficult, particularly in smaller countries where there is, inevitably, a smaller media. There have been attempts at forming a regional press complaints commission but these generally fail due to lack of willingness of countries to work together.
It is not, an never will be, possible to have a world standard for press bodies because they are entirely predicated on their code of practice and these inevitably, are tailored to local requirements depending upon local standards and customs.
The CPU Media Trust continues to work with the UK Press Complaints Commission and is more than happy to facilitate introductions or discussions with that or other relevant bodies such as the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) which is now a global affiliation of independent bodies.
At the heart of any self-regulatory system is the code of practice, which is written by editors for editors. It is entirely tailored to the requirements of the country concerned and is agreed by all the editors. The code is generally reviewed once a year to ensure that it is always relevant and appropriate. Ideally, adherence to the code is written into journalists contracts thus ensuring that it is widely disseminated and read. Although there are many variants, typically, the heart of the code is very similar across the world.