British Self-Regulation and the American First Amendment

Britain and the United States have cities in which newspapers have become huge enterprises (i.e. London and Chicago or New York City). With this concept comes a heavy sense of competition between newspapers, and also a heavy sense of responsibility by the people in charge of the gate-keeping or the preparation of said news. Although the newspapers in both countries function in a similar manner, there are large difference between the two in terms of acceptable and proper journalism, which stem not from only the history of the press in each country, but from their systems of government as well.
Newspapers in England began in the second half of the 18th Century in the basic form they are recognized in today. Prior to this time period, pamphlets and almanacs were being printed as early as 1621. The early forms of public relations agents came about during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I, as merchants and statesmen hired individuals to write lengthy and opulent newsletters to glorify whichever achievement or decision they’d wish for the general public to be notified about (Fox-Bourne Vol. 1 p.1). Not much emphasis was placed on advancing toward newspapers at this time, considering literacy was extremely low where the middle and lower classes were concerned.

Under the reign of Charles I, news censorship was at an all time high. With the use of printer’s licensing, the monarchy held a strong grasp around the proverbial throat of the printing industry. If a printer produced a pamphlet or reader which went against the monarchy’s wishes, then the printer could face a serious fine, imprisonment; have his operation shut down by having his license revoked, or all three. It wouldn’t be until the civil war and the establishment of a commonwealth that British printers and newspapers would start to prosper (Fox-Bourne Vol.1 p. 7-9).

Fox-Bourne in his second volume on the history of newspapers in England states that up until about 1887, newspapers had to fight for their press freedoms, issuing their collective outrage at such bills as the Libel Act, the Stamp Act (yes, one was placed on England as well) and prior restraint by its early monarchy (Fox-Bourne p. 367).

In contrast, the American press had to do little to fight for its chief freedom, the First Amendment. Considering the first truly “free” newspapers in the U.S. started just after the revolution, and the decision to make criticism of officials legally acceptable happened shortly thereafter as well in correlation with the John Peter Zenger trial (Sloan p. 46-47), the U.S. press hasn’t had nearly the uphill battle of English newspapers.

Another area of difference is in what sort of freedoms the press is allowed in each country. In England, the press has a certain amount of freedom, but must adhere to the decisions of a separate entity which can decide on its own if the paper has erred. This entity, the Press Complaints Commission, has the power to decide if a newspaper did something it shouldn’t have, and can write the adjudication or apology for the paper. In order to fully comply, the newspaper must actually print the adjudication in the exact size and manner stipulated by the PCC.

The Press Complaints Commission of PCC is a self-governing body which is maintained with the sole purpose of fielding complaints from the public about newspaper and magazine content. Essentially, the PCC is meant to serve as a sort of ombudsman between the newspaper or magazine and the person or persons complaining about the content in question.
The commission is independent of the print media industry and is comprised of 17 members, and has had to handle roughly 3,000 each year. The commission has about a 90% success rate with resolving disputes. The PCC isn’t so much a print media service so much as it is a public service, making itself accessible to all by printing its contact and code information in numerous languages (PCC Info p.2).

The PCC itself actually works off of a set of guidelines, referred to as the “Code of Practice,” which consists of 17 subjects or areas of journalism a reporter or newspaper must not violate. Areas such as privacy must be upheld, but exceptions can be made, depending on whether or not the reporter or newspaper in question can prove substantially that the privacy was violated for the good of the general public (PCC Code).

In the United States, the press is given a greater “freedom” in that it is equipped with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ensuring freedom of speech. More accurately, it states: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press . . .” (Carter p. 49). In the U.S. the newspaper industry would consider the codes of the PCC to be a form of “prior restraint,” which has been struck down almost every single occurrence in a court of law.
Essentially, no one can tell the press what it can and cannot print. It essentially has the freedom to invade the privacy of whomever it wishes, whenever it wishes, and in any manner it wishes. Since there is no regulatory body in the U.S., the press has relied on court cases to set for itself its own check system based on libel and defamation cases.
Rather than rely on a separate governing body to come up with a code for them, every newspaper in the nation has its own set of standards, and relies on the nationally accepted list of offenses even Supreme Court judges use for libel cases, centering on actual malice, knowledge by the reporter that the information was or probably was false, whether or not actual harm was done to the individual or individuals in question, etc.

Under provisions of the PCC Code of Practice, all individuals have equal protection and are subject to the same guidelines of what is considered defamation of character. In the U.S., public officials, celebrities and members of the general public are protected under different degrees of what is considered “defamation.” Essentially, an ordinary member of the community is not open to the same criticism by the press as is an official or celebrity.
During the early years of the U.S. being its own independent country from England, criticism of public officials was actually a crime, punishable with jail time and was initiated by the local or regional government office; not by the individual (Lawhorne p. 39-40). However, a precedent was eventually set indicating that public officials could not be awarded compensation if the statements made in print were truthful. Prior to this precedent, any and all remarks made about officials was subject to charges of libel and punishment.

In time, criticism of a public official would not be a crime, and was put in the same class as defamation cases by private citizens. Although all tests of libel would need to be applied by a judge (only a few need to be met in cases of private citizens) to test whether an official was defamed, the government could no longer back the official, and libel cases became an individualized matter, making the official responsible for their own actions, and made truth a defense against libel. Now, truth became something the press could at last use, whereas before, officials were almost untouchable (Lawhorne p. 70).
Since England has no such provision of the First Amendment, making accusation against the government can be a touchy, if not dangerous thing for the press to do, considering the lack of legal protection instilled upon the press by the government. Although there is a system in place to protect individuals from the errors of the press, there are no real provisions in place to assist the media, as there is in the U.S. However, like in the U.S. the PCC has indeed instilled a moral obligation on the part of its press cooperatives to protect the confidentiality of sources who wish to remain anonymous for fear of endangerment.

In our own press history, the concept of an anonymous source was pushed to the brink by the situation brought forth by the Watergate conspiracy unlocked by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in which they were led to the individual or individuals responsible for initiating the break-in at the offices of the democratic national headquarters. Although they assigned their key source the code name of Deep Throat, they still refuse to divulge his name to this very day (Pearson p. 169).

Yet a third manner in which newspapers in England differ from those in the U.S. is that the use of nudity as a marketing ploy is highly common, and is used in some of the country’s most read newspapers. Although these papers are tabloids, the overwhelming majority of the middle class can be found reading newspapers of this sort on a daily basis.
Whether or not the nudity is the selling factor, or the use of dynamic language and colorful layouts have both marketing experts and sociologists scratching their heads. Whereas newspapers in the more respectable broadsheet format stick to their guns and chose to dispense with the use of nudity as a sales pitch because of taste and morality issues, popular newspapers in the U.S. do so because of decency and pornography laws put in place by Congress.

The relationship between tabloids and broadsheets in England the correlation between tabloids and broadsheets in the U.S. are vastly different. English tabloids don’t typically run headlines about half bat-half boy monsters running around or women who give birth to 400 lb. babies. U.S. tabloids, however, make this their general business.

In essence, U.S. tabloids are only referred to as such because of the format in which they are printed. This isn’t to say that English tabloids don’t jump to conclusions when it comes to printing inaccurate stories as well. Due to extreme competition among the London tabloids, fact-checking and double-checking to see if a story checks out are often chucked out the window in favor of getting the scoop on the competition.

Papers in both the U.S. and England that follow the broadsheet format and practice more “ethical” journalism often face the same difficulties, such as which stories to lead with, and what editorial stance to take on important issues involving politics and social matters (Hetherington p. 151-153). In contrast to tabloids, whose stance on politics is usually passive so as not to upset their high readerships and thus jeopardize the circulation (Sparks p. 92-93), broadsheets make it their business to take a political stance or at least an editorial one based upon all facts presented so as to better educate their public. The same can be said for most big city newspapers in the U.S. as well.

Although the English press faced many hardships to get started, and faced an upward battle all the way up to more modern times, the U.S. press faced many of the same situations all within a 200 year time period, thus, in a sense indicating how the press felt the need to play catch-up in order to properly notify the general public. Both the English and U.S. newspaper systems have had to prove themselves time and again either by sticking with the truth, or by always remembering that it is in the common good which they must always attempt to operate.

It has been through personal experience and through analysis of historical references that neither press system is any better than the other because of the simple fact that it is up to the individuals involved to make the right decision. Although it would appear the First Amendment would be a much handier and more comforting of a “blanket” for the U.S. press to curl up in, it still doesn’t keep the press as much in check as the British system does of a separate examining body.
The First Amendment, although priceless, can have a false sense of security, particularly for young reporters, and this can be dangerous when misused. The system of the PCC, although somewhat patronizing, acts as a sort of added insurance for the general public. In the end, it is the general public to whom the newspaper industry worldwide owes a great debt of gratitude. For without a general public of readers, how could newspapers exist?

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