When reports of the phone-hacking scandal first broke last year, many people were appalled by the revelations of journalistic malpractice at the News of the World. Some of us, however, were even more concerned about how few seemed prepared to mount a resolute defence of the freedom of the press in response to the furore.
article continues after advertisement
It wasn’t just that the usual tabloid-bashing politicians and celebrities seized upon those past cases of phone-hacking involving one paper and a single private detective to launch a crusade to purge the entire press. Far worse was the extent to which the alleged defenders of freedom of expression – liberal journalists, journalism academics and civil-liberties campaigners – immediately went over to the other side. Most of them lined up behind Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the British media, demanding tighter press regulation under the banner ‘We believe in press freedom, BUT…’
It was this formation of a new crusade to sanitise the press that prompted me to write my new book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever. Writing it presented me with some peculiar problems in these strange political times. After all, I am a man of the left who, as a young propagandist in the 1980s, sided with the thousands of print workers sacked by Rupert Murdoch when he moved his newspapers to Wapping, which led to long months of mass pickets and conflict with riot police outside the works. Since then, I have expended countless words criticising the ‘bourgeois’ press, not least the tabloids. There is, of course, still much in those papers that is not to my taste.
Yet here I am today writing a book and articles in defence of the freedom of the press, not least the tabloids, against the left-wing and liberal would-be regulators. What has changed is not my views, but the political context in which we find ourselves.
Ours is an age in which the old industrial class war has been superseded by a new culture war over such fundamental democratic rights as freedom of expression. And in that culture war, the crusade to curb and sanitise the press has become a frontline battlefield. This is a battle in which the future shape of our society is at stake. Freedom of expression is the bedrock liberty of modern civilisation. And freedom of the press in all its forms is the practical form of that liberty – which is why it has been at the centre of a struggle in Britain since the printing press was first introduced more than 500 years ago.
“What is at stake in the battle over press freedom is nothing less than the meaning of a free society for us all”
Just how far that freedom has fallen out of fashion was made clear again this week, at the conference of the British political party laughably called the Liberal Democrats. At a fringe meeting of the Hacked Off campaign, the star turn was the comedian and actor Steve Coogan, a leading celebrity crusader against the tabloids. Coogan’s declaration that ‘press freedom is a lie peddled by proprietors and editors who only care about profit’ apparently went down a storm with all those allegedly liberal- and democratic-minded delegates. It sounded like the sort of ‘radical’ argument about ownership of the press that my old friends on the left have made many times in the past.
Yet consider what it means in the context of today’s debate around Leveson and press regulation. Press freedom is a lie! Presumably then, the way to ‘the truth’ must be to make the press less free. If only those who have struggled and suffered through British history to win that freedom had been able to share the wisdom of Alan Partridge. After all, who would have gone to the Tower in order to defend a lie?
Blinded by Murdochphobia, many liberal journalists, academics and campaigners seem to have swallowed the real ‘lie’ that the press is too free to run wild. The truth is that the British press is not nearly free or open enough. There is much more than the press barons in the dock here. What is at stake in the battle over press freedom is nothing less than the meaning of a free society for us all.
The Leveson Inquiry has brought these issues to a head, with its mission not to censor the press but to reinforce a sterile atmosphere of conformism. This conflict, as former Guardian editor Peter Preston noted in an astute column about my book in the Observer, has highlighted a new divide that cuts across any traditional left-right lines.
But that conflict over freedom of expression did not start with the phone-hacking scandal. The Leveson Inquisition and the crusade to purge the press has brought to a head key political trends that some of us have been struggling against for the past 25 years. For example, we have been defending the right to be offensive since the furore sparked by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. More recently, spiked has waged a war of words against the culture of ‘You Can’t Say THAT’, which has spread from the campuses through politics and the press to the football grounds, and now even infects the supposedly free zones of the internet such as Twitter.
What is more, the culture war against press freedom is underpinned by what spiked has long identified as the biggest political problem of our age: the loss of faith in the capacity of humanity to make its own history. History shows that, broadly speaking, those who fear and loathe the mass of people and their passions have always favoured more controls over what we are allowed to write and to read. On the other side, those who genuinely support an unfettered press have always based that stand on a belief in people’s capacity to reason and decide for themselves what is true. The lack of support for press freedom among the liberal elite today is a glaring illustration of the low opinion in which the authorities and experts now hold the mass of humanity, who must be protected from harmful words and images for their own good.
That is why the defence of press freedom has become a central issue for those who want to uphold not only freedom of expression, but also a human-centred view of the future. It is in that spirit that I have written my little book on press freedom, for the same reason that I edited Living Marxism and then helped to launch spiked – as weapons in the fight for human emancipation. As the book’s sub-title points out, we need a diverse, open and free press – in all of its current and future forms, from the Sun to spiked – more than ever, if we are to seize the day and shape the future.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press ...And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
Subscribers to spiked plus can comment on selected spiked articles. If you are a subscriber, please log in here. If you would like to subscribe by giving a regular donation to spiked, click here.