The Swedish Press Council, which was founded in 1916, claims to be “the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world.” The Alliance of Independent Press Councils (AIPCE) shows that the press council model has spread far and wide, from Armenia to Zambia. There have also been some efforts to follow the model in the US—most notably the Minnesota News Council, which shut down last year after four decades because of a lack of funding, and the Washington News Council, which has been mediating press complaints from the public in Washington state since 1999—but these councils have not had direct support from news organizations, relying instead on foundation support and individual donors.
One press council that has become infamously embattled in recent months is the British Press Council, which was first established in 1953 and served as the inspiration for Minnesota’s system. But its predecessor in the UK, the Press Complaints System (PCC), recently announced that it will soon shut down (or “move into a transitional phase”) after heightened and sustained criticism over its mishandling of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
Its chairman still says he believes in the basic philosophy of self-regulation. “The problem really was that the Press Complaints Commission was being criticized for not exercising powers it never had in the first place,” PCC chairman Lord Hunt told the BBC last month. “So I recommended that we start again, with a new regulator, a press regulator, with teeth.”
The Leveson Inquiry has been probing possible wrongdoing at News Corporation for five months now, and both Rupert Murdoch and his son James are testifying again this week. When the inquiry began last fall, investigative reporter Nick Davies—whose work for The Guardian was instrumental in uncovering the phone-hacking story—testified that the scandal had forced him to change his previous views about self-regulation. He argued that the failings of the PCC in this case revealed the shortcomings of the entire system. “I do not trust this industry to regulate itself,” said Davies. “I love reporting, I want it to be free. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it would work.”
When asked about Davies’ comments, the PCC’s Scandinavian counterparts’ responses were pragmatic. Jytte Scharling, who is both the president of the Danish press council Pressenaevnet and a Supreme Court judge, pointed out that, in Denmark, such intrusions of privacy would never be handled by the council; rather, that kind of matter would go straight to the courts and stay there. The chairman of the Finnish council, Risto Uimonen, wrote a blog post in which he took issue with critics of the PCC and the self-regulatory system. By those critics’ same logic, Uimonen asked, should we declare the legal system a failure because, despite its existence, crimes continue to be committed?
His council secretary agreed. “Phone hacking is a crime, and there is no way an organization like ours could prevent it,” Porra wrote in an e-mail. “It is our job to keep both the journalists and the public informed about good practices, but if journalists want to commit crimes, I guess it would be difficult to prevent it with any kind of regulation.”
Porra conceded that every system of regulation has its weaknesses, but argued that voluntary self-regulation was preferable to the alternative, especially with the challenges the news industry is facing today. Whether the alternative would be a lack of regulation or a state-run regulator, she believed self-regulation is the best kind of system. She wrote, “There are all kinds of challenges right now in the media business, and it’s essential that the council is aware of their possible effects on ethics—and takes stances, when needed.”