In 1787, Thomas Jefferson, US Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, said that ‘were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter’. That’s how profound and serious and deeply democratic press freedom was considered. Writing from a France on the verge of revolution, he noted that an informed citizenry, and a voracious press, was the best guard against tyranny, the most clear, tangible manifestation of citizens’ right to speak and to debate freely and to hold their governments to account.
‘Newspapers without a government.’ How alien that feels today, not least here, back on the Old Continent. Because today, in the UK, our statesmen, our elite, not only loathe press freedom, the liberty that exists to keep them up at night – they also work to undermine it. The British press, which has been nominally free since the abolition of Crown licensing in the 17th century, now faces being strongarmed into state-backed regulation by means of a terrifying piece of legislation that could soon sail into UK law. This is serious; 350 years of liberty are on the line.
Following the Leveson Inquiry, kicked off by the phone-hacking scandal and cheered on by illiberal academics and tabloid-burned celeb philanderers, the government set up the Press Recognition Panel – by Royal Charter, no less – to license self-regulatory bodies. As of yet, the only body to submit itself and be approved is Impress. Funded, according to this Guardian report and many others, by Max Mosley, Impress is run by people who dream out loud about banning the Daily Mail. But here’s the problem: no one has signed up. Some have signed up to IPSO, the independent regulator set up after the Press Complaints Commission was wound down post-phone-hacking, but it refuses to seek official recognition. Other titles, like the Guardian and the Financial Times, remain entirely self-regulating.
But that could soon change. The 2013 Crime and Courts Act quietly passed Leveson’s recommendations into law. Except one, which has yet to be enforced. Section 40 aims to introduce ‘incentives’ for newspapers to sign up to statutory-approved bodies (which, at the moment, means Impress). Among them is the stipulation that newspapers that shun state-approved regulation would have to pay the costs of anyone who brought a civil suit against them, whether they won or lost. This is an ambulance-chasers’ charter, and a green light for anyone who is miffed at what hacks print about them to mount costly court cases, safe in the knowledge it won’t cost a penny. This isn’t an incentive, it’s blackmail.
Despite setting Leveson up, and vowing to introduce everything it suggested, David Cameron’s government got cold feet about Section 40. And May’s new culture secretary, Karen Bradley, ever eager to pass the buck, quietly put it, and the plan to launch Leveson Part 2, out to public consultation. Hacked Off, the anti-press-freedom lobby group, has rallied its supporters to write in through its website. Not that these loathers of the gutter press, and the gutter people they assume read it, are too pleased that people are having their say. ‘This consultation is no substitute for Leveson’, Hacked Off spits on its website.