Published on November 28, 2012

Where is the public in the debate about public interest

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Pile of newspapers

The public is missing from all the debate about how the press should be regulated. 

I’m loath to add to the reams of paper and bucket loads of electronic bytes which have been spent on the forthcoming report from the Leveson Inquiry about regulation of the press, but I’m going to.

The options, as presented by the two sides of the debate are cast as:

  • statutory regulation, or
  • self-regulation

The former is presented by its opponents as giving those who the press are supposed to hold to account too much power. These opponents raise the fear that the press will be neutered – although I think when the specters of Putin and Mugabe are raised we may want to look more closely at the merits of the case.

The latter is presented by its opponents as being exactly the solution which caused the problems in the first place and will therefore solve nothing – although the alternative of giving the powerful the power to rule over how they should be held to account also cannot be an option.

What is striking in all of this is that we are talking about how to ensure that the press acts in the public interest. And yet, neither option proposes any role for the public in regulating the press to ensure that it acts in the interests of citizens.

How have we got to the point where both the press and government establishment can be arguing over how to ensure public interest and yet citizens don’t get a look in?

It seems to me that establishing an independent process on a statutory footing for regulating the press which gives the public a central role must be developed. The jury system operates effectively within our justice system. It would not be technically difficult to adapt it so that, for the most important complaints against the press, a jury of peers is formed to consider the evidence on both sides and, guided by a judge or an independent expert, rule on that complaint.

Without a central role for the public it is unlikely that, in the long term, it is the public’s interest which will be regulated.

Picture Credit: Faungg

One Response to “Where is the public in the debate about public interest”

  1. November 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm

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