For a free press, with no buts
In the war of words around the Leveson report, too many on all sides have accepted the myth that the UK press is too free and must be tamed.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report into media ‘culture and ethics’, widely expected to propose a new press regulator backed by law, will spark a war of words in parliament and across the media. But will it be a phony war?
The trouble is that leading figures on both sides of this battle have accepted the central myth of the Leveson debate: the myth that the British press has been too free to run wild, and needs a tough new ‘independent’ regulator, whether statute-backed or not, to keep it in line.
As spiked has argued from the start of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, the truth is that the press is neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator is appointed to wash its mouth out with soap. This is why we reject all of the options on the table today.
You can use whatever inoffensive-sounding weasel words you choose – statutory backdrop / underpinning / recognition etc – but a law to regulate the press still means more state intervention in a supposedly free press by any other name.
A statute compelling newspapers to sign up to a new regulator would look like a modern version of state licensing of the press. That system dictated that nothing could be published without the permission of the Crown. People went to the Tower and the gallows to fight for a free press until licensing was ended in 1694. Despite what some might like, we are unlikely to see a return to hanging, drawing and quartering for dissident journalists and publishers. But what happens to a newspaper that refuses to pay penalties under the new statutory-backed system? Are the authorities going to close it down?
Many politicians and media figures have latterly come out against the spectre of statutory-backed regulation. Yet the alternatives they propose all accept the basic premise of the anti-tabloid celebrities and crusaders – that tough new measures are needed to tame the press. Thus the proposals for ‘strengthened self-regulation’ backed by Lords Hunt and Black involve giving a new ‘independent’ regulator more power to police and punish the press than are currently enjoyed by the police, and introducing a form of industry licensing whereby those who refuse to sign up can be denied press cards and news sources.
There is no need for scaremongering about Britain becoming Zimbabwe-on-Sea. The danger is not crude censorship or an ‘Orwellian nightmare’ of government-controlled newspapers.
The threat is more insidious: that the shadow of state intervention and the consensus on the need for tougher regulation leaves us with a more conformist, tamer and sanitised press. The mission of the Leveson Inquiry has been to purge the press of that which is not to the taste of those who consider ‘popular’ a dirty word. A conformist culture of ‘You can’t say THAT’ is the biggest threat to press freedom after Leveson, whatever new system of regulation is finally agreed.
The press is already far too unfree, hemmed in by dozens of restraining laws and by informal self-censorship. A top editor has warned of an ‘ice age’ for investigative journalism even before a new regulator is imposed. What we need is more diversity, boldness and troublemaking in the press. The last thing required is another policeman, state-uniformed or not, looking over the shoulders of journalists and editors.
We should defend press freedom and freedom of expression as a bedrock liberty of a civilised society – and defend the right of a free press to be an unruly mess. That some abuse press freedom, as in the phone-hacking scandal, is no excuse for others to encroach upon it. Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving. It is an indivisible liberty for all or none at all.
Amid the three million words spoken at the Leveson Inquiry and the 2,000 pages of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, some key questions have not been aired. Leveson asked ‘who guards the guardians?’. But what about the equally important question: who judges the judges? What gives a Lord Justice the right to propose, and a government to impose, rules under which the press operate in a society where the public should be free to choose for itself?
And why do we need special regulation of a free press anyway? In America, the First Amendment makes it illegal to pass any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Those few words – inspired by the Puritan revolutionaries of England – say more about the meaning of press freedom than Lord Justice Leveson’s voluminous report will today.
In the post-Leveson debate, almost everybody will begin by stating that of course they support press freedom, before adding the now-obligatory ‘But…’ of one sort or another. It is time we raised the banner for free speech and a free press, with no buts.
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