Lost track of what’s happening on the endless not-so-merry-go-round of arguments over press regulation in the UK? Join the queue. But behind the arcane and seemingly interminable legalistic arguments, important principles of press freedom are being quietly sacrificed, and that could affect us all.
Almost a year after Lord Justice Leveson published his 2,000-page report proposing statutory-backed regulation, the politicians, lawyers and lobbyists continue their private squabbles over precisely how many privy councillors can dance on the head of a pin. Just about everybody else switched off long ago. Little wonder at that; the latest chapter looks even less exciting than the last.
This week, the government ministers who sit on a sub-committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council rejected the newspaper industry’s proposal for a Royal Charter which would have established oversight for a new regulator. At the end of the month, the privy councillors are expected to endorse a slightly amended version of another Royal Charter to oversee a regulator, stitched up in March over late-night pizza by the major political parties and Hugh Grant’s Hacked Off lobby grouplet. Even then, the drama will be far from over, with suggestions that newspaper publishers might go for a judicial review of the process. We can hardly bear the tension. Meanwhile, amid much media anticipation, Lord Justice Leveson himself has finally emerged from hiding to appear before parliamentary committees – and to declare that he has nothing to add to his one-million-word report. Keep awake at the back there!
Forget about those constitutional shenanigans for now. Let’s remind ourselves – and them – of some of the far more important points that have been lost sight of in all this. For instance…
Press freedom should not be in the gift of governments or judges
This week, Maria Miller, Tory culture and media secretary in the Lib-Con coalition government, told MPs that the newspapers’ proposal to retain an element of self-regulation had been dismissed because it was ‘unable to comply with some fundamental Leveson principles and government policy’. So what? Since when did a free press have to comply with the wishes and whims of government ministers or judges?
For more than 500 years, since the first printing press appeared in England in 1476, those who believe in freedom of expression have struggled to free the press from all forms of state interference and supervision. First it was the system of Crown licensing that decreed nothing could be published without the official censors’ approval; then it was the punitive stamp taxes which sought to put the new radical press beyond the pocket of working people. Now it is the attempt to impose more state-endorsed regulation, whether through statute, Royal Charter or a combination of both.
Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity, only to those deemed deserving or well behaved by the authorities. It is an indivisible liberty that applies to all or to none at all. Everybody, from prime minister David Cameron to Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lord Justice Leveson, claims to support press freedom. Perhaps, then, they might look up the meaning of the f-word – freedom. The point about a free press is precisely that it is not obliged to ‘comply’ with what anybody else demands.
The ‘Leveson principles’ are the problem, not the solution
All sides appear to have accepted that whatever system of press regulation they arrive at must meet the standard of what Miller calls ‘fundamental Leveson principles’. Yet those who are serious about press freedom should recognise that endorsing those Leveson principles means accepting defeat. Because the ‘fundamental’ belief running through Leveson’s voluminous report is that the press needs to be tamed and sanitised.
That was clear from the moment Cameron announced the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011. The breaking scandal over phone-hacking at the News of the World was the pretext. But that was already being investigated on a grand scale by the police. Lord Justice Leveson was handed the much wider brief of probing the entire ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the wicked British press and coming up with new rules to change them. Everything he proposed, from pressing newspapers to sign up to a tough new regulator under threat of ‘exemplary’ damages, to criminalising more forms of investigative journalism, was based on a commitment to curtailing real press freedom. That is hardly surprising since, as I have shown before on spiked, the key Leveson proposals were effectively ghost-written by Professor Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off. The only way to defend the principle of press freedom is not to grovel before the ‘Leveson principles’, but to burn them to the ground. Otherwise, as I predicted a year ago in my book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, it will not matter what precise system of regulation they finally arrive at; the big battle will be lost.
A free press is not like the police or the banks
Why, scoff the supporters of regulation backed by law, should the press think it is still entitled to self-regulation? After all, they say, these days nobody would seriously consider allowing another important British institution, such as the police force, to regulate itself. Nor would there be any sympathy for the idea that another big business, such as the banking industry, should be left to manage its own affairs.
The notion that the press should simply be treated as another state institution or arm of corporate capitalism shows how badly many have lost sight of the importance of free speech today. Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of a civilised society, without which nothing that we hold dear in culture, science, the arts or politics would be possible. As the practical manifestation of that freedom, a free press has been key to humanity’s emancipatory struggles through modern history. Yes, the national press is powerful (though not nearly as much as the conspiracy theorists imagine). And yes, it is a business (though increasingly a loss-making one). But it is far more than that. As a young Karl Marx argued 170 years ago, a free press can be the ‘ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul’. Not quite what one thinks of a policeman or a banker.