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Law Column: Self-regulation across the Pond


I’ve been to the other side of the Pond, and ever mindful of you, dear readers, I had a quick look at newspapers and press regulation in the Golden State of California.

What surprised me about my snapshot was that in the land of the First Amendment, a fair number of US journalists and publishers nevertheless appear to have a remarkably similar approach to UK self-regulation.

When it comes to libel, the commitment to freedom of expression reigns supreme. Even the smallest community newspapers explicitly refer to their commitment to freedom of expression under First Amendment.  And the consequent absence of a contempt law as we know it remains eye catching.

And of course, they do not face the threat to freedom of expression posed by S.40.

But I was not expecting to come across codes of conduct which, to a greater or lesser extent, are fairly similar to IPSO’s Editor’s Code of Practice.

At one end of the scale, I loved the community news that make up the content of small community papers such as The Carmel Pine Cone, The Point Reyes Light, and the St. Helena Star.

Their patches cover various small towns and villages, and their staples are the same as over here – local council rows, economic woes, how local economies should be improved, long serving employees, new church halls, and so on.

Some, but not all, of these community and local papers belong to the American Society of News Editors. ASNE’s Statement of Principles is rather shorter than the Editor’s Code, but still, the commitments to ‘truth and accuracy’, ‘responsibility’, ‘impartiality’, and ‘fair play’ are all recognisable to British eyes.

At the other end of the scale, we have the world famous titles – the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times.

The Chronicle’s journalists work to an Ethical News Gathering code. There are some clauses which are very much tailored to the American experience, but the commitments to truth, accuracy, correcting errors, dealing sensitively with the bereaved, giving anonymity to victims of sexual assaults and to children, and protecting sources, are all there.

Likewise at the LA Times, though if anything, its Ethics Guidelines are not only more stringent that the Chronicle’s, but more demanding than our Editor’s Code.

For example, the Times “does not identify suspects of criminal investigations who have not been charged or arrested” unless what we would call the public interest applies.  Compare that with the acceptable practice of UK crime reporters going to great lengths to find out, and then publish, the names of those who have been arrested.

And how about this: “The Times expects its editorial staff to behave with dignity and professionalism. We do not let the behavior of the pack set standards for us”.

Naturally, the Editor’s Code is all about journalists behaving properly whilst out gathering the news, but it is nowhere near as specific as this particular obligation. On the other hand, I rather suspect that the tabloid press in LA might not necessarily agree with this high-minded sentiment.

All in all, my surprising conclusion is that in California, it seems that self-regulation of the press, or at least those parts of the traditional press which I had a look at, is very much alive and well, and similar to anything that IPSO would expect of publishers and journalists.

But the one crucial difference is that they are operating a system of self-regulation which exists on a title by title basis, and unlike in the UK, no regulation or regulator exists at a state or national level.

Would fake news be quite such the issue it has become if our cousins had their own version of IPSO? It’s an interesting thought – but that’s a whole different debate.

*** This report from a community newspaper somewhere in rural California may well be my favourite of all time – “Sheriff’s Calls: At 5:12pm, a Prius was parked in a road”.

No, I don’t understand it either!

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  • October 10, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Why are these conclusions surprising? US journalism has always had higher standards of conduct than the British press. There’s no need for an IPSO (or a better-conceived equivalent) because their J schools have always taught ethics alongside a commitment to accuracy and fact-checking. It helps that there’s no national press as such, and newspapers are not tied to overtly political editorial positions. They take their constitutional rights seriously, and generally resist the cavalier power-without-responsibility approach which seems to be at the heart of the mistrust of what used to be Fleet Street.

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