Who Guards The Guardian? Lessons From The UK Press.


UK paparsThe press plays a key role in the political discourse, national identity, and popular culture of every country. The role of the press as being the voice of the voiceless and providing the platform for different voices to be heard is central to its essence. In most democratic states, the press is known as the fourth estate of the realm generally because of its watchdog role as the guardian of democracy and defenders of the public interest. The essence of the press in the United Kingdom has however been questioned now than arguably any other time in British press history following the infamous ?phone hacking? scandal at the News of the World. In July 2011, The News of The World was closed after 168 years of publication. The Prime Minister David Cameron ordered an inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson into the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal. The press was heavily criticized following many expos? through the inquiry that journalists had been involved in intercepting voice mail messages and many other private communications. This has raised the subjects of regulation and the press, the efficacy of the Press Complaints Commission and the practice of journalism in general as issues at the forefront of public discourse. Chairman of the inquiry Lord Justice Leveson as a result said at the start of his inquiry in November 2011 that ?the press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians??

Freedom of expression is fundamental to every democratic society. The right of free expression is a universal human right. Democracy thrives on the contribution of all. But this cannot be possible without information which is required for quality public discourse and the shaping of public policies. This is where the role of the press and for that matter the media is significant. The press hunts for and circulates information, ideas, comments and opinions. At the national, regional and local levels, it is expected to be the public?s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler. According to the 2011 edition of World Press Trends, overall since 2006, the number of paid-daily newspaper titles published across the world has risen by 12.3% to 14,853. Globally the newspaper publishing industry produces revenue of about US$160 billion annually. And over three billion people or 72% of literate adults worldwide read a newspaper regularly. Notwithstanding concerns about the impact of the internet on print journalism which has led to a worldwide decline of circulation figures by 3.9% since 2008, WAN still believes the figures indicate that the global print industry is ?healthy and vigorous? and continues to be a major source of information for many around the world.

With strong democratic credentials, the UK has a vibrant independent press which plays a critical role in strengthening the culture of free speech which is necessary for democracy. There are about twelve national daily newspapers in the UK with a combined circulation of around ten million. The British Newspaper Online categorizes national newspapers in the UK into three; ?heavyweights?, ?mid-market? and ?redtops?. The heavyweight end of the UK press is well represented, with nine national ?quality? newspapers with the Daily Telegraph as an example. In between the quality papers and the mass market ?red-tops? are the mid-market papers, with pretensions to hard news coverage but with nearly as much entertainment as their more downmarket rivals. Daily mail is an example of a mid-market paper. The mass-market end of the British press has little hard news but plenty of celebrity gossip, sensational crime reporting and loads of sport and entertainment coverage. The Sun is a redtop par excellence. At the regional and local levels, there are 1,100 regional and local newspapers in the UK. The local press is the UK?s most popular print medium, read by 33 million people a week. More than 6,100 local newspapers are sold or distributed in the UK every minute. This diversity and freedom in the newspaper market especially at the national level is informed by the pluralist point of view which argue for competing groups and interests with none of them predominant all the time (Curran and Gurevitch, 1991). Pluralism in the national UK press however exists only in the number of newspaper titles. It hardly affects views and opinions. The fact is that ownership of press titles at the national level in the UK is concentrated and this affects content. The British national press has been dominated by four companies at least since the mid-1950s. The newspapers published outside these large groups have never accounted for more than 24% of the market and, for the last 35 years at least, have had around 15% of the market (Sparks 1995). The content of these newspapers are influenced mostly by the political and business interests off their owners. McNair(2009) notes that by 1985, the political affiliations of Britain?s national daily newspapers were as follows: nine fully supported the conservative party; one, the Financial Times leant heavily in that direction; leaving only the Mirror Group titles and the Guardian tentatively backing ?moderate? elements in the Labour party. He argues that this overt political bias has disturbed many observers of the British press since the 1980?s. Because it naturally tends to negate any supposed fourth estate function, since there is not even much coverage of state practices in the first place, let alone any rational debate and criticism of them.


The UK press just as its Ghanaian counterpart is self-regulated. Regulation is the process of monitoring the activities of industries. Some media industries regulate themselves as is the case of the UK which is known as self-regulation. Others are regulated by bodies set up by legislation which is also known as statutory regulation. The Press Complaints commission represents self-regulation for the newspaper and magazine industries. It undertakes to investigate complaints about editorial material in all UK national and regional newspapers and magazines, through the application of a code drawn up by editors. The PCC operate a Code of Practice which covers the following: accuracy, opportunity to reply, privacy, listening devices, hospitals, misrepresentation, harassment, payment for articles, intrusion into grief or shock, interviewing or photographing children, children in sex cases, victims of crime, discrimination, financial journalism, confidential sources and public interest. Newspaper editors, reporters and journalists are expected to abide by this code to ensure that standards are met and upheld. The press however is not the only media industry in the UK that is self-regulated. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is an example of self-regulation by the advertising industry. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) was also set up as a self-regulating agency by the UK film industry in 1912. It however has a dual role now as the Video Recordings Act of 1984, mandated it to compulsorily certify all video titles in distribution which is a statutory role. The only media industry which is under statutory regulation is the broadcast media. The communications act of 2003 established a new UK regulator vested with powers formerly held by a range of different regulatory bodies. The Office of Communications (Ofcom) replaced the Independent Television Commission, Broadcasting Standards Commission, the Radio Authority, Oftel and the Radiocommunications Agency. It adjudicates on viewer and listener complaints.

The Press Complaint Commission has over the years come in for strong criticism for its handling of complaints with the latest being the alleged phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World. In The Guardian of April 12 1999, Lord Wakeham, the PCC’s head, had to mount a strong defense of the self-policing system of the press, arguing that the code imposes a significant degree of self-censorship on editors. He pointed out that since 1991 the Commission had dealt with 25,000 complaints and that in all of those the editors had responded in terms of the code. In 2010, the PCC issued over 1600 rulings, and negotiated over 600 settlements. The issue now is that there is a sense of desperation in the UK newspaper industry with circulation figures declining. The Audit Bureau of circulation (2012) reports that the nation?s biggest selling newspaper, the Sun, saw a 10.5% decline in its circulation figures between August 2011 and August 2012. Therefore, whilst one can certainly find the UK media revealing abuses of state power, we would have to bear in mind that the prime function of most media organs today is to make money and for many of them that means offering entertainment rather than current affairs. Aware of the commercial interest of media owners, the strategy of some newspaper editors has been to publish stories that would drive up circulation figures often with little or no regard to the PCC?s ethics. Hugo Young, former political editor of the Sunday Times notes that ?very little space is any longer available for the discussion of poverty, inequality, injustice or anything which might be recognizable as a moral issue. If there is an ethic at work, it is an unvarnished version of the business ethic?. The infamous ?phone hacking? scandal at the News of the World is a classic example.

In July 2011, the Leveson Inquiry, led by Lord Justice Leveson, was set up after allegations of widespread wrongdoing by the press, including the hacking of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone. It was to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press. Prime minister David Cameron who set up the inquiry, set the tone for a public debate on press regulation when he declared publicly that the current Press Complaints Commission had been “absent” during this greatest of scandals. The future of the PCC therefore became central to the inquiry. The inquiry heard from politicians, celebrities, media figures and the police and published its report at the end of 2012 in which it made recommendations on the future of press regulation. However, the recommendations will still have to answer the question Lord Justice Leveson posed at the start of the inquiry: “who guards the guardians?”

It is my opinion that any good democracy entails an open society. A free press is an essential prerequisite to an open society.? Self-regulation is therefore the only way to ensure the freedom of the press. It is also a fact that besides the PCC?s code of conduct, the UK press has few special rights as it faces a range of legal restrictions which already to some extent inhibit freedom of expression. These include the libel laws, the data protection and human rights legislations, official secrets and anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and development of privacy actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination and obscenity. Any tough new regulation of the press will obviously make the act of news gathering an uncomfortable exercise and end up putting democracy under threat. In moving forward however, I believe the model of self-regulation we have seen under the Press Complaint Commission over the years with scandal after scandal hitting the industry has not really inspired confidence amongst the populace. A much stronger and independent Press Complaint Commission backed with proper investigatory powers and tough fines but not based on statute is therefore preferable. As editor of the Associated Press Paul Dacre argued that ?self-regulation albeit in a considerably beefed up form is, in a country that regards itself as truly democratic, the only viable way of policing a genuinely free press?.

Any lessons for the vibrant Ghanaian press?




The writer is a former host of the Jolly Breakfast Show on Skyy Power fm in Takoradi. He is currently a Tullow Scholar studying Corporate Communications and Public Affairs(MSc) at The Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, United Kingdom.

Contact me: philiposeibonsu84@gmail.com


obonsu84 (Skype).

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