What can Denmark tell us about press regulation?

In the lead up to the publication later this week of the Leveson report into UK press ethics, the public debate has been grounded on two sharply opposed positions backed by newspaper owners and senior editors on the one hand, and the political class on the other. The latter is backed by the leadership of the National Union of Journalists.

Now I say public debate, but there is little evidence that the general public give the matter much thought. But it should do, given the possible consequences of either sticking to the status quo of the Press Complaints Commission – a newspaper owners and editors luncheon club that is worse than useless – or having the state interfere with the operation of Britain’s free press. This is what many fear Leveson will recommend in one form or another.

In a laudable attempt to broaden the context of the debate on press regulation and Leveson, the BBC’s Nick Higham recently hit the streets of Copenhagen, and gave us a three minute broadcast report and accompanying article. Higham is a very good reporter and interviewer, but I cannot help thinking that the BBC missed a trick with its failure to look at Danish press regulation in a wider cultural and political context.

In Higham’s broadcast piece there is brief mention of journalistic deference as displayed in the prime minister’s weekly press conference (the assembled hacks stand respectfully as the PM enters the room). It is a useful illustration, but why didn’t Higham take this further and ask questions about the nature of Danish public discourse in more general terms?

Denmark’s hegemonic social democratic emphasis on reasonableness and formal negotiation goes a long way to explaining the near consensus in that country in favour of press regulation that, while supposedly free of editorial interference from government, is statist in approach. On a sliding scale of statutory-ness it is more controlled than the “statutory underpinning” favoured by the likes of Hacked Off and the NUJ in Britain. But not much.

Returning to the title of this post, I would say that Danish press regulation and my personal experience of the Danish media confirms me in my opposition to any form of statutory regulation. Even the ‘lite’ type called for by my own trade union leadership.

In the early noughties I lived and worked in Denmark, though as a research scientist and not a journalist. During that time I was a daily reader of the Guardian-like Politiken, and an occasional peruser of Berlingske Tidende (Thunderer) and Jyllands-Posten (Daily Telegraph). You may recall that Jyllands-Posten was the paper that in 2005 published the infamous Mohammed cartoons. These three national newspapers, together with pretty much all print and broadcast media in Denmark, are regulated by the Pressenævn.

The Pressenævn is so firmly embedded that there is no credible opposition to it. It is a bit of a stretch to say that journalists as a whole support the press council, but dissenters do not speak out against it to any significant degree. For politicians the council is a godsend, as it is for commercial concerns subject to less than glowing journalistic oversight. Politicians love the Pressenævn so much that they are currently clamouring for more and tighter regulation.

Governmental and commercial constituencies benefit from the Pressenævn as it provides them with a massive amount of PR control over their message. With the regulator empowered to force media to publish prominently apologies, corrections and clarifications, there is an increased tendency on the part of editors to self-censor. That is clearly editorial interference, albeit implicit, and it is interference with state sanction.

Denmark is a liberal democracy and open society, and the Danish people are not given to ovine behaviour. But the Danes are not served well by a press that I would describe, in comparison with the British political media, as rather soggy.

In his BBC report Higham interviewed the current editor of Politiken: a former diplomat with no journalism experience. Given that we are talking about state regulation of the press, the irony is that Bo Lidegaard’s predecessor Tøger Seidenfaden memorably caved in to pressure from a Saudi lawyer following Politiken’s re-publication of the Mohamed cartoons. Seidenfaden incurred the wrath of government for being so spineless, and promptly fell on his blue pencil.

It’s a funny old world.