Defending the press as an unruly mess

In the debate about statutory-backed regulation, many on all sides appear to have accepted the myth that the UK press is too free.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

As the debate about press regulation warms up with the reportedly imminent publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, there seem to be some important misconceptions around.

On one side, those demanding regulation backed by statute appear to be either deluding themselves or attempting to delude the rest of us that this is not the same thing as state interference in the press. But it is.

On the other, some of those resisting such a regulatory system seem to assume that anything short of statutory-backed regulation would be a victory for press freedom. But it would not necessarily be so.

These issues came into focus at two events I spoke at recently, involving both sides of the debate. One was the first event of the Free Speech Network (FSN), a loose alliance of media-industry groups. The other speakers were Professor Tim Luckhurst, whose important pamphlet against statutory regulation, Responsibility Without Power, was launched at the meeting, and Conservative MP John Whittingdale, chair of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee. The audience included a lot of media people and various journalism lecturers and professors from the Hacked Off lobby – hackademics, the poachers-turned-gamekeepers of this whole debate. They were given plenty of scope to argue for statutory-backed press regulation by the chair, John Humphrys, in his best the-BBC-really-is-neutral mode (he even allowed them the last word, from the floor). Hacked Off’s celebrity voiceover artists were also there, but made less of a contribution: Hugh Grant went off in a huff after his Channel 4 film crew was refused entry, while Steve Coogan stood at the back looking grumpy throughout and at the end gave a half-hearted ‘boo’.

The other event was an internal seminar for BBC journalists in their plush New Broadcasting House, to discuss the consequences of the Leveson Inquiry. This time I suspected I would be playing the role of Aunt Sally on the panel, as the advocate of press freedom with no buts alongside chief Hacked Off hackademic Professor Brian Cathcart, Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, and Hugh Grant himself, who agreed to speak in his unpaid and unelected role as spokesperson for press victims everywhere, despite his Channel 4 crew again being refused permission to film. Although I suggested that the BBC had given us plastic cups of warm water rather than glasses in case of trouble, the debate proved polite and quite revealing. (Much of it was covered by Chatham House rules, which means nobody can be quoted directly, but the introductory remarks are due to be posted on the BBC website.)

An overall emphasis from the Hacked Off lobby is that a tough new press regulator needs to be backed by the power of the law, in order to compel the press to sign up to the system. Anybody who suggests that this is a form of state control over the media, they scoff, is just scaremongering about Britain becoming another Zimbabwe. Instead, there are different ‘shades’ of statutory-backed regulation, which could be ‘light touch’, or simply a ‘backdrop’ or ‘framework’, or even just involve ‘statutory recognition’ of the new regulator.

Listening to these semantic exercises put me in mind of the old line that you cannot be ‘a bit pregnant’. You cannot have a harmless ‘shade’ of state intervention. Call it whatever you like – even, I suggested to them, ‘Gangnam-style statutory-backed regulation’ – it remains state interference in the affairs of a supposedly free press by any other name. As, indeed, was the Leveson Inquiry itself. And state intervention in all of its forms, from Crown licensing to stamp taxes, is what defenders of press freedom in Britain have been fighting against for more than 500 years. It makes no difference that it is now proposed by academics and campaigners in the name of protecting ‘ordinary people’ from the press, rather than by courtiers in the name of the king.

It is a sign of the modern liberal-left’s remarkable subservience to the state that it should now be the most forceful advocate of statutory-backed regulation, supported by everybody from the leadership of the National Union of Journalists to the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. After all, historically it was always those who supported radical change – from the English revolutionaries of the seventeenth century to the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth and the European democrats of the nineteenth – who fought hardest to free the press from the state.

There is no need to stir up horror fantasies about Britain becoming Zimbabwe-on-Sea in order to oppose statutory-backed regulation. Of course, we are not facing an ‘Orwellian nightmare’ of governments dictating newspaper stories and a boot stamping on a journalist’s face forever. But any involvement of the state behind a regulator would cast a long and subduing shadow over the press. The immediate danger we face is not censorship, but that we are left with an even more conformist, tame and sanitised press than today.

The demand for Leveson to propose and the government to impose a system of statutory-backed regulation has understandably raised concerns in the press. The media industry’s launch of the Free Speech Network has raised the banner against any such statutory-backed regulation. There is another risk, however: of the statutory spectre prompting the industry to make too many concessions, and to propose a system of ‘self-regulation’ that is little better.

There have been signs in the recent debate of an over-defensive anything-but-statutory attitude among some in the media. The alarm bells started ringing when it was reported that Lord Hunt, former Tory cabinet minister and head of the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC), wanted a new ‘independent’ regulator that would have more powers to police the press than are currently enjoyed by the police (and look what they are up to, arresting more than 80 tabloid press people already). Then in July, Lord Black of the Telegraph Group spelled out more of the industry’s proposals, including an investigations unit with the power to put miscreant publications on summary trial and fine them up to £1million without the right to appeal.

Black’s proposal for a PCC2 would sign publications up to binding five-year contracts. To press them to commit, it is suggested that only those who sign up could receive press cards for their journalists, material from the Press Association, and possibly business from major advertisers.

This all seems a considerable step too far away from anything recognisable as self-regulation. We do not want licensing of journalists or publications by the state. But why should we be dependent on ‘licences to report’ endorsed by the major industry players, either? We do not want a return to indirect taxes and financial penalties being imposed by the courts or other state bodies. So why should we endorse a system of fines and financial penalties imposed on dissident publications by an ‘independent’ body? It all smacks of an alternative form of coercion to toe the conformist line, which ought to be anathema to a free press. A safety-first system of strict regulation, with the threat of the state stepping in always behind it, seems unlikely to encourage a freer and more open attitude.

The underlying problem remains that all sides in this debate appear to accept, at least in practice, that the press has been too free to run wild, and needs somehow to be seen to be brought to heel. That is the central myth of the debate around Leveson. It would be far closer to the truth to say that the press in all its forms is already neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator of whatever design comes along to wash naughty newspapers’ mouths out with carbolic soap. Turning the argument on its head is the central aim of my book, There Is No Such Thing as a Free Press.

It is important to put the principle that press freedom is indivisible, with no buts, back at the centre of the argument, and to stand for the right of the press to be an unruly mess. The awkward fact about a free press is that it is free, and not subject to somebody else’s notions about what it should or should not report, whether you or I like it or not. At the FSN event mentioned above, John Humphrys asked what the main ‘purpose’ of a free press should be. My answer was that its purpose is to publish and be damned.

If we must suggest a system of some sort, I am for self-regulation of the press with the emphasis on the self, rather than the regulation. But more importantly, Tim Luckhurst’s pamphlet raises in passing the question that is never asked in the UK: why do we need specific regulation of the press at all? One journalism professor recently told me that the idea of not having a new regulatory system was ‘other-planetary’. How about that other planet, the USA, where Americans have just elected their president under a constitution which explicitly forbids the passing of any law that might infringe free speech or the freedom of the press? Lord Justice Leveson and his cheerleaders would be given short shrift over there. That ‘statutory framework’, we might recall, was exported to America by the Puritan revolutionaries of England, who had a better grasp of the importance of a free press than do many apparently liberal voices today. It is a spirit we could do with re-importing and updating in the twenty-first century fight for a truly free and open press.

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.

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Topics Free Speech


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