Sunday 4 November 2012

How to punish newspapers appropriately

The Leveson Inquiry is currently investigating how best to regulate the media. Some newspapers in particular have stepped over the (moral and legal) line over the last decade and the sanctions that were imposed by the Press Complaints Commission were little more than slaps on the wrist. 

There is hence a widespread consensus that something has to be done, yet commentators disagree about what that could possibly be. One way of looking at sanctions for violations of a code or legal framework is to argue whether the sentence is appropriate to the crime. In the developed world this has led to a significant narrowing of the options in sanctioning instruments. Hard labour is not something we generally endorse anymore as a response to illegal behaviour. Most commonly, today criminals are either punished through financial compensation or prison. 

These two instruments may however be especially blunt when it comes to infringements of a self-imposed code, or violations of good taste and decorum. Newspaper editors are unlikely to serve community sentences either, the last of the means in the repository of punishments. So perhaps it is time to look further, or, to be more precise, to look to the very distant past. 

James Cook on his voyages around the globe in the 18th century encountered a particularly tricky problem with locals on the islands he discovered. The ship and its provisions were subject to widespread ‘thieving’. Locals simply did not attach the importance to property relations as Cook and his mates did. This presented Cook with a considerable difficulty, especially as he noticed that the most common form of punishment (corporal) that was usually meted out to perpetrators in his own team seemed to have no effect with the local population. His fellow traveller, Captain Clerke, then ‘hit upon a method which had an effect’ by ‘shaving their heads for though [having a shaved head] was looked upon as a mark of infamy and marked out the man’ (Cook, The Journals, p.465).

What does this tell us about newspaper regulation? Well, Cook’s example demonstrates that the effect of punishment is peculiar to the cultural environment. It is determined not by what outsiders consider appropriate or harsh but by what is considered such by anybody within the cultural context in which the individual operates. So, here is my suggestion about newspapers that step over the line. Instead of fining them, force them to print a correction or apology in the same place and at exactly the same size in which the original story appeared. Let’s see how they would like it to have their heads shaved in this way.

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