Relevant legislation and guidelines

Given the many constraints on journalists, how can we talk of free media? Discuss with reference to relevant legislation and guidelines. Journalists work within a range of constraints and influences which inevitably affect how much information can be delivered to the public. Limitations such as legal constraints and regulatory codes of practice play a deciding factor in whether something is printed or not. Not only do journalists have to work with legal constraints there are also advertisers, cultural bias and sources also.

Harcup, (2004) defines constraints as "legislation that restricts how journalists in England and Wales may gather information, what information they may have access to, and what may be published". This is where the question of a free media comes into play, having a free media would ideally suggest that journalism is merely a form of communication to make public what is private. However with the constraints put on journalists what can be made public in reality is therefore very limited.

In total there are 50 to 60 laws restricting journalists' activities (Harcup, 2004) in the UK; The Libel Act, Access to justice Act, Official Secrets Act, Obscene Publications Act, Local Government Act, Treason Felony Act, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Press Complaints Commision (PCC) code of conduct, Police Act and the Freedom of information Act are to name only ten. From listing only a small amount of the constraints makes clear that freedom of speech in the media is somewhat a notion which can sometimes be seen through only rose tinted windows.

The Press Complaints Commissions (PCC) code of conduct is a form of self-regulation set up by the newspaper industry. The PCC does not hold any official or legal power to punish deterrents. However, working on the basis of 'customer complaints' it has had much of the success as a regulatory body holding legal rights in acting as a constraint on the activities of journalists. Nevertheless, it is the harsh libel laws that hold true enforcement power that allows the implementation of Government control.

It reminds editors and journalists who is boss and holds the authority to take any newspaper to court for defaming someone. Newspapers have had to pay out extensively large sums of money in cases of being sued for example for printing a statement which was defamatory in the sense that it exposed someone to hatred, ridicule or contempt, to being shunned or avoided (Harcup, 2004) The libel courts make the option of 'playing safe as more attractive' to journalists over being dragged through the courts. The fear of having to pay hefty damage costs keep journalists at bay and offer the rich and powerful a privilege.

In the sense that a story which essentially could be relevant to public knowledge would be kept under wraps because the person in question has more money or holds more power through government instigated rights. The official Secrets Act which was brought about in 1911 on the whole gives journalists very weak access to official information (Keeble, 2001). The New Labour Government and the cabinet have ensured that any member of the public does not get hold of any official information. Secrecy makes it difficult to obtain facts about politics, new policies and in general anything the government would prefer to be kept buried.

Policies which would in fact affect the whole of the population would in essence be kept secret because at the end of the day "the government knows best" (Keeble, 2001). If through any means information is obtained, journalists face the danger of being arrested. Fear for ones own safety does not seem like something a UK journalist would need to bear in mind or worry about. However, according to the new Terrorism Act it is a very prevalent issue which does not just affect journalists abroad. The police can search and question journalists' under the Terrorism Act without any trouble.

If a journalist is in suspicion of trying to cover up the actions or illegal goings-on of campaigning groups such as animal rights activists, environmentalist groups, Green Peace and poll tax demonstrators amongst numerous others (Keeble, 2001) they could face imprisonment. "The Human Rights Act incorporated the European convention of Human Rights into British law" also (Keeble, 2005) in 1988 which fuelled the privacy row into frenzy. It not only had an affect on what could be said but it put high profile people in a very comfortable position where again they could take newspapers to court.

To some extent it could be said that freedom of speech or free media has been used widely with overindulgence. With so many higher powers dictating what can be said and effectively what is printed a journalist's job is made even more difficult. With trying to be ethical, avoiding libel court cases and giving the public information which they are owed, to draw a line and in actual fact try and reach a compromise becomes nearly impossible. New laws being passed that do not allow access to crucial information which is rightly public information sets the boundaries which cannot be crossed.