Let me start by saying I’m actually broadly in favour of press regulation as currently being proposed by parliament. However, it is facing considerable headwind from both the press and from some liberals. I’m not going to critique the objections at this point, but their existence means considering alternatives is prudent.
Let’s focus on a specific issue of regulation that’s hard to object to: factual accuracy. Yes, there are many problems not covered by this, so addressing it in isolation will never be a complete solution. It is a very important issue, however, and one not exclusive to the press, so giving it special attention may be justified.
How do you police factual accuracy? An existing approach is via corrections – the offending publication notifies its audience of the inaccuracy. As long as the correction is given due prominence, then it is likely that anyone previously misled will now be aware of the error.
Voluntary corrections already exist and are good in their own right, but a means of press regulation might be an independent regulator with the power to demand them. With appropriate measures to determine if something is definitely inaccurate, this could provide an accessible recourse with minimal impediment on the press. Parties could submit a complaint, with evidence and a fee, and the publisher be given a chance to respond. The regulator could then require a correction, of specified wording and prominence, based on the evidence provided.
This obviously isn’t a complete solution, and is not without drawbacks. However, it deals with some key issues without introducing anything too controversial – only factual inaccuracy would be policed, and no punitive measures deployed. What forms of media were covered is less critical – including blogs, for example, merely means blogs could end up being asked to publish corrections.
There’s an issue over thresholds – too strict restricts speech, too lax makes the system toothless. One solution might be multiple thresholds – if false beyond reasonable doubt, then a retraction is ordered. If only false on balance of probabilities, then a more discreet correction. Another level might be borrowed from wikipedia – for biographical facts, require some form of acknowledgement if they cannot be shown to be true.
I’m not claiming this would be better than options currently tabled; however, I think it’s constructive to consider alternatives, even hypothetically.