Policing the press

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 December, 1999, 12:00am

Now that the Privacy Commissioner has come out in favour of a self-regulatory press council, the Newspaper Society's proposal to set up an independent monitoring body should be given the go-ahead. It is a matter of establishing an authoritative council to set standards that will enable the press to function as a public watchdog, without hindrance but in a way that does not overstep the boundaries of genuine public interest.

Self-regulation is the only acceptable solution to the problems of intrusion of privacy, sensationalism and sleaze, which have brought some sections of the media into such low repute.

A government-appointed body would send the wrong signal about press freedom to the world. Hong Kong has one of the highest newspaper readership levels, and it is also a battleground in one of the fiercest circulation wars. The fact that the biggest-selling newspapers have caused the most offence is a telling insight into current public attitudes.

There is a puzzling dichotomy between the clamour for some sort of control over newspaper excesses, and the popularity of the mass-circulation press. But this split attitude can change, as has been seen elsewhere. In Britain, it was not the Press Council that finally forced newspapers to reassess their practices. The real change did not come until after the death of Princess Diana, when the outcry against media intrusion reached such a crescendo that many newspapers realised sales may be affected drastically if they did not step back inside the bounds of propriety.

Until then readers could not get enough news about the royals.

For many newspapers readership figures will always remain the final arbiter of what they publish. And yet a press council can certainly raise the level of public debate about media standards; and ultimately that debate may lead to a change in the public's view. But for an independent body to be really meaningful, it has to include at least one of the top-circulation newspapers and, ideally, all of them.

The publications that decide not to join will be making their own statement. But in going against the tide of public opinion, and by failing to make their position on ethical standards clear, they may find themselves paying the ultimate price of falling sales.