Shackling the world’s press with good intentions

Monday, October 19, 1998

David Flint sat at a table in the rooftop conference room of The Freedom Forum on a sunny morning last week, speaking in the same tone and manner one might expect in the recitation of a grocery list. But arrayed around the table as his audience were members of a number of U.S. press organizations who weren’t there for tips on best buys at Safeway.

They were there to find out more about the most recent international campaign to save the press from itself.

Flint is a professor of law from Australia, where he chairs the Australian Broadcasting Council and is former chair of the national press council. More important, he heads up the executive council of the World Association of Press Councils. In September, that body decided that the world needs an international code of ethics for the press, a mechanism for enforcing it, and a global press council to handle “transnational” complaints about the press.

Professorial and persuasive, Flint articulated a vision of journalists serving the cause of freedom and human need under a global code of ethics. The press council would be needed to adjudicate complaints of individuals about error and excess by the press, as well as occasional complaints from government officials about the “misinterpretation” of domestic policies and events by foreign journalists. For good measure, Flint pointed out that the code and council also would defend press freedom and help halt the hastening decline in respect for the press.

That’s the pitch, anyway. In reality, Flint and his colleagues have bought into the idea that the press is just too free and is in dire need of responsibility, restraint and regulation.

Most of those in his audience last week, however, have not bought into that idea, nor are they likely to. For good reason.

Despite the proponents’ soothing words about voluntary participation and nongovernment involvement, these proposals betray the same animus toward Western-style reporting that produced UNESCO’s “new world information order” two decades ago. Although that disastrous policy was eventually rescinded, there are still nations around the world that would like to find a way to control the international press the same way they do their own.

Interestingly, the WAPC proposals come on the heels of harsh criticism from press councils in Turkey, Sri Lanka and India of foreign reporting about conflicts in their countries. And proponents don’t try very hard to conceal a look-down-the-nose attitude toward the U.S. press’s coverage of the Clinton scandal and recent reports of plagiarism and other transgressions by U.S. journalists.

While some criticism of the press certainly is warranted, the proposed remedies would more likely kill the patient than cure the disease; indeed, it would aggravate a world situation badly in need of more press freedom, not less.

Those who would draft a code of ethics suitable for all of the journalists of the world undertake a daunting and ultimately impossible task. The political, ideological and religious differences are too deep, the cultural divides too vast, and the journalistic traditions too diverse.

Those who would establish a world press council should look to the fact that fewer than 30 countries have adopted the concept. In the United States, a national press council struggled for 11 years to survive, then succumbed to lack of funds, lack of participation, and lack of interest (although a handful of state and local councils has survived).

But even if the odds were overcome and the WAPC succeeded in establishing a code and a council, the problems endemic to the concepts could not be overcome.

In the end, internal regulation of the press is no better than the external variety.

To codify journalistic “norms” is to hand yet another tool to dozens of governments already engaged in the persecution, torture and imprisonment of individual journalists — governments that shut down newspapers, journals, and radio and television stations at will.

Even though the code would be voluntary, governments could interpret them as they wished to rein in alleged excesses of the press, or to grant or deny accreditation of journalists.

Further, the wall between press councils and government crumbles all too easily. In some countries, press councils are statutory entities. In some, they receive government funds and/or sanction.

A global code of ethics creates an expectation of results that creates a demand for conformance that creates a need for enforcement that cannot be realized without the power or sanction of government.

That does not seem to deter Turkish journalist Oktay Eksi, who has spent much of his life fighting to help free fellow journalists imprisoned in his country. In supporting the call for a global code and council, Eksi says, “Let’s accept that journalism is journalism. It’s the same all over the world. … We try to achieve the same goal, which is freedom of expression.”

Eksi and Flint are passionate, and because of their passion, persuasive, especially in a world fed up with the supposed excesses of journalists. But good men behind a bad idea is a dangerous combination. In any country and in any time, passionate pleas for press regulation are nothing less than the death rattle of freedom.

Let’s hope David Flint takes back to the World Association of Press Councils word of the polite but firm rejection of their proposals from the American journalists.

Let’s hope that they come around to the notion that has served the American press and public so well for two centuries: The best possible regulators of the press, and the only ones necessary, are readers, listeners and viewers.

The sound of an audience leaving is the one complaint journalists are most apt to hear loud and clear.

Paul McMasters can be e-mailed at