We don’t need no regulation

Hey, politicans, leave the press alone!

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech

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.

The talk now is of the need for ‘independent self-regulation’. That is an oxymoron. If the system is ‘independent’ of the press, in the hands of the Great and Good, it cannot be self-regulation. We should decipher these latest code words for the external policing of press freedom.

The biggest scandal is the left’s abandonment of the cause of press freedom

Over the past two years, attention has focused on the phone-hacking scandal and other alleged press crimes, as the pretext for demanding new controls and regulations. For some of us, however, the far more shocking scandal has been the way that left and liberal opinion in the UK has abandoned the cause of fighting for press freedom and gone over to the other side.

Those demanding radical change and social progress, first in Britain and then in the US, have always been in the forefront of the struggle for freedom of expression and of the press. It was central to their attempts to mobilise the masses. Now, by contrast, left-wing and liberal opinion so mistrusts the public that it has been in the forefront of the crusade to sanitise the press around Leveson. These attacks on the popular press are expressions of an underlying fear and loathing of the populace. And nowhere more so than in the BBC and the Guardian, those supposedly liberal bastions of the media. That newspaper’s legal chief recently announced that the Leveson Inquiry and its aftermath had been a ‘disaster’. No kidding. Perhaps the Guardian’s editor might have considered that always-likely outcome when he told Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry that the British press had been ‘under-regulated’.

One abject aspect of the left’s crusade has been its use of high-profile victims such as the McCanns and the Dowlers as ‘human shields’ behind which to advance its campaign to curb the press. The latest bizarre example was Ed Miliband’s use of the Daily Mail’s attack on his late father Ralph as an argument for more regulation. Even the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition now feels free to pose as a hapless victim of a newspaper headline to strike moral poses against the popular press.

Nowhere in the world is the press too free

There are, of course, many problems with the press, in the UK and the US and just about anywhere else you care to mention. It is important to keep some sense of perspective, however. Nowhere in the world is the problem that the press is ‘too free’. Nowhere in the world is the solution to the shortcomings of the press to impose a system of less freedom. Yet that is the central myth underpinning the entire discussion of regulation in Britain today.

Any newspaper or media outlet can get carried away with itself and overstep the mark, from the News of the World to BBC TV’s flagship Newsnight. They should always be taken to task for it. But the fact that some might sometimes abuse the freedom of expression should never be turned into an excuse for the authorities to impinge upon that precious liberty.

As Frantz Fanon put it, a free press can be good or bad, but an unfree press can only be bad. Amid all the talk of the crimes of the press and the police campaign to criminalise tabloid journalism, let us insist that there is only one thing worse than a free press, and that is its opposite.

We don’t need no regulation, we don’t need no thought control

The question that never gets asked in the UK is, why do we need special laws and regulations to control the press anyway? One journalism professor suggested to me that the idea of an unregulated press was ‘other-planetary’. So I asked him if he was referring to that ‘other planet’ known as the United States of America. There, in a culture inspired by the English revolutionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they have the 45 words of the First Amendment, which forbids the passage of any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. In Britain, where we seem largely to have forgotten our history of struggling for those freedoms, we are weighed down under the million words of the Leveson report demanding statutory-backed press regulation. When I was in New York last week, one tabloid used that freedom to damn Congress as a ‘House of Turds’. What would prigs such as Miliband and Leveson make of that?

The attempt to sanitise the press is not merely an attack on journalists or proprietors. It is ultimately an assault on the public, who are to be denied the freedom to read or hear what they see fit and decide the truth for ourselves. All in the name of the ‘public interest’, of course. To stop them getting away with it, we need to cut through all the tiresome legal claptrap and keep an eye on the prize of freedom of expression.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture by: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/Press Association Images

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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