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1.2 The historical background to media regulation

The history of media regulation begins with the application of the printing press to book production from the mid-15th century onwards in Western Europe. Initially, printing was simply a more productive alternative to the copying of manuscript texts by hand, which had not been formally regulated, although in practice it took place mainly under the oversight of authorities of church or state. As the printing trade and industry expanded, especially after 1500, both church and state took an increasing interest in the content of what was being printed and published, especially with a view to combating heresy or dissent. This led very widely to the licensing of all printers by the state and/or the requirement for advance approval by church authorities for texts to be published. The export and import of books was also controlled or forbidden. Authors and printers could also be severely punished for publications deemed heretical or treasonable. In more autocratic states, such as the Ottoman Empire and Russia, printing was simply banned for two hundred or more years.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries in Western Europe and North America, the history of media regulation was one of struggle against restrictions on publication waged in the name of political freedom and human rights, but also on behalf of the printing trades and industries, including the rights of authors. The freedom to publish was achieved by gradual change in Britain and by revolution in France at the end of the eighteenth century and gradually in territories of the Austrian and Prussian Empires during the nineteenth century. Similar freedoms were never really attained in Russia, even after the Revolution of 1917, nor in the British colonies and Japan until much later in the twentieth century. For most of the world during the modern era, repressive and punitive media regulation in the interest of state power has been the norm.

A new dimension to regulation was added by the invention of new media during the nineteenth century, especially the electric telegraph, then the telephone and wireless, which led to public radio broadcasting from 1920 onwards. All these media were closely regulated by national laws that were more or less required by international agreements relating to technical requirements (e.g. radio frequency allocation). They also served other interests of state, including military and economic considerations. Often regulation took the form of control by state bodies or public monopolies. In other cases, such as the United States, supervision was exercised by a powerful governmental body (the Federal Communications Commission). During the early 20th century, the cinema film was also established, typically regulated locally for reasons of safety (fire) and/or content (moral standards).

Broadcast media (radio and television) were the most closely regulated of all media nearly everywhere during the twentieth century and they have never achieved the degree of freedom enjoyed by print media. Since about 1980, new forms of distribution by cable and satellite have led to a great expansion of media output and to more relaxed regulatory regimes, especially in relation to content. Although there has been deregulation of media, it is often remarked that, in response to the advent of new media and changed conditions, we are really in a period of re-regulation where regulatory frameworks are amended to reflect new economic and/or political priorities rather than simply removed.