British newspapers operate in a harsher legal environment than the American press, and it may be about to get worse.
Millions of Britons were justifiably outraged over last year's serial revelations of illegal and unethical behavior by the powerful and influential tabloid press in Britain. But the regulatory remedies proposed last week by an official commission of inquiry seem misplaced, excessive and potentially dangerous to Britain's centuries-old traditions of a press free from government regulation.
In a nearly 2,000-page report, the commission, led by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, cataloged the glaring misdeeds of Rupert Murdoch's sensationalist tabloid, The News of the World, which is no longer published.
Noting, among other things, the tabloid's "reckless disregard for accuracy," and "lack of respect for individual privacy," it called on Parliament to create an independent regulatory body with the authority to fine newspapers up to $1.6 million for violating its guidelines. This new organization, which newspapers could join voluntarily, would replace the largely ineffective Press Complaints Commission, run by the industry itself, which is supposed to uphold a code of ethical journalistic practices agreed to by participating publications.
British newspapers operate in a harsher legal environment than the American press. But they have been free from government licensing since 1694.
Press independence is as essential a bulwark of political liberty in Britain as it is everywhere. That independence should not, and need not, be infringed upon now. Much of the conduct described in the report on Thursday -- hacking into voice-mail messages of ordinary citizens and illegally obtaining medical records -- is not newsgathering. They are illegal acts under British law.
In such instances, newspapers can claim no shield against civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution. Those remedies, not government regulation, are the right ways to stop the kind of behavior alleged against The News of the World, and good deterrents against misconduct by other papers.