‘Of course I support a free press, but…’
All-party support for regulating the media threatens to reverse the historic gains of the struggle for press freedom.
You would be hard pressed to know it from the madness of recent news headlines, but there has been an even more important issue at stake in the hacking furore than whether Rebekah Brooks would lose her key to the News Corp executive washroom, or whether a committee of British MPs would get to enjoy an orgasm of outrage in front of Rupert Murdoch this week.
What matters far above and beyond all of that is the future of a free press. And it already seems clear that, no matter who might eventually get convicted of what and how far Murdoch’s shares might fall, the biggest loser will be press freedom.
We have entered the age of ‘I support a free press, but…’ Every leading British politician who has spoken on this subject of late has begun by assuring us that of course they want to see a free, even a ‘raucous’ press, one that ‘can make our lives miserable’, etc. This just the warm-up, going through the motions.
Then comes the punchline: ‘But….’ In the light of recent revelations, they conclude, the ‘culture’ of the press must, of course, be made more responsible, to produce a more ethical servant of the ‘public interest’. And to ensure the raucous Fleet Street Kids behave themselves along these lines, new proposals for more intervention in the news media have been streaming off the presses with the support of all parties – parliamentary hearings, police investigations and a judge-led public inquiry empowered by the government to ‘craft a new system of press regulation’.
The notion that more official regulation of the media is a good thing for the people goes against the tide of history. The fight to free the press from state control has been central to almost every major struggle for liberty and democratic revolution.
It was in the midst of the English Revolution of the 1640s that John Milton wrote his pioneering pamphlet against the system under which nobody could publish anything without a licence from the king, so that ‘unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailer in their title’. Milton asked only for a ‘free and open encounter’ between Falsehood and Truth.
When the American revolutionaries wrote the Bill of Rights into their new Constitution in 1789, the First Amendment could not have been clearer about the principle of the press being freed from state control in a democratic society. ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’
In the 1840s, the first articles a young Karl Marx had published in a German newspaper were a polemical series against the control of the press by the Prussian state. Marx argued that ‘The free press is the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself…. It is the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom.’
This is just part of the history of struggle that has brought us to something imperfectly approximating a free press. Yet now, in twenty-first-century Britain, it seems the authorities are agreed upon the project of turning back the clock. More than 200 years after the American Puritans declared that politicians ‘shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press’, our allegedly liberal British politicians appear bent on doing just that. The fact that the new anti-press regulations have this time been justified as a defence of victims rather than of kings, and as an attack on the power of Murdoch rather than on the liberties of the public, does not alter the fact that they represent a poke in the ‘vigilant eye of a people’s soul’.
Worse, as this is the UK 2011, and our elected politicians lack the nerve to do things in their own name, they have handed over the future of press freedom to a judge: the unelected and unaccountable Lord Justice Leveson, who now apparently has the authority to reverse the gains of history. Tory prime minister David Cameron told parliament this week that, although a new legal regulator of the press might be needed, of course he did not personally favour ‘full statutory regulation’. But the judge’s inquiry was free to consider all options, and if m’lud decided to bring the press under full state regulation then, said Cameron, ‘we will have to be guided by what this inquiry finds’.
So the government and the judges are out to restage the battle for a free press. Yet where are the Miltons and Thomas Paines of today? Most of those who would claim to be liberals have not only gone over to the other side, but are leading the regime’s cavalry charge against press freedom. Liberal journalists waving their anti-Murdoch banners have been in the forefront of the campaign for more legal and police action to control the tabloid press, using high-profile victims such as murder victim Milly Dowler’s parents as human shields in their propaganda war. Some allegedly liberal commentators have even proposed that journalists should once more be licensed before they can publish anything. Great idea – why not go the whole historical hog and say the queen has to endorse the licence? Or maybe in the age when celebrities rule the Earth it might be more appropriate to put Princess Kate in charge of licensing the press.
It is quite a thing to realise that these supposedly cynical journalists and campaigners are naive enough to imagine that new regulation of the written word will only affect the ‘bad’ tabloid press, not the ‘good’ outlets that they write for and read. It is reminiscent of the left wingers in the 1930s who campaigned for and applauded the introduction of a Public Order Act to counter the fascists – and were then astonished when the state first turned the new laws against them.
We do not actually live in an absolute monarchy or a Prussian police state. The British newspapers are not all about to be closed down (unless they go out of business) and the internet is flourishing. But the danger to a free press comes not only from censorship. The more insidious threat is conformism. The current drive to tame the tabloids can only reinforce the consensus that there are things than cannot be said, ideas that cannot be questioned, and issues that should not be investigated. If the one-note drone of the media and the Twittertariat during the hacking scandal – all repeating the same moralistic message, over and over again – is a sign of things to come, then the free press is already on the missing list.
There is a long record of self-censorship in the British media. George Orwell noted it in his 1945 essay, ‘Freedom of the press’, which he wrote as a preface to Animal Farm (though it has rarely been published with the book). Orwell observed that, even during the national crisis of the Second World War, the state had not been a heavy-handed censor: ‘The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary…. Things are kept right out of the British press, not because the government intervenes but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact.’ We are now faced with a new generation of gutless, risk-averse self-censors at the forefront of the illiberal liberal media, telling us that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to say that.
The judge’s inquiry may be free to consider all options, but we can be reasonably sure that he will not conclude that there is already too little freedom and too much regulation of the press, both formal and informal. Whatever the outcome of all the investigations and inquiries, the tabloid press has been found guilty. It’s time to make a stand for a raucous, irreverent and offensive media that is prepared to question everything, before we find ourselves convicted of practising irresponsible journalism without a licence.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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