Leveson: Liberal UK signs its own death warrant

The 200 ‘leading UK cultural figures’ demanding that the press bend the knee to regulation by Royal Charter should hang their heads in shame.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

So now we know the names of more than 200 ‘leading UK cultural figures’, from luvvies and lords to authors and academics, who have signed Hacked Off’s declaration demanding that the UK press signs up to the politicians’ Royal Charter on press regulation. It makes remarkable and revealing reading.

No, not the Hacked Off statement itself, which is just the latest familiar attempt by the elitist little lobby group fronted by Hugh Grant to tame the popular press. What is revealing is the collection of eminent writers, filmmakers, professors, actors, human-rights campaigners and others from the intelligentsia and creative industries – even including top liberal journalists such as John Pilger and Nick Davies – who have proved willing to put their names to such an illiberal demand.

Looking down the long list of names (reprinted in full below, from Press Gazette) I was immediately reminded of George Orwell’s prescient words from his 1946 essay, The Prevention of Literature. Orwell observed ‘that in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all’.

Just such a ‘weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves’ has been the hallmark of the debate about press freedom in Britain ever since the phone-hacking scandal broke. While celebrities and victims of hacking fronted the campaign for tighter regulation of the press, it has been the liberal and left-wing intelligentsia and media that have driven the crusade to curb the popular press. It was they who formed Hacked Off, used the hacking scandal to demand and get the Leveson Inquiry into the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the UK media, and wrote the report’s demands for statutory-backed regulation.

Now more than 200 prominent members of what are sometimes called the chattering classes have publicly signed up to the demand for the press to bend the knee to the Royal Charter. It would be difficult to overestimate the abandonment of liberty that represents. The Royal Charter deal, stitched up by all the main political parties in an infamous late-night meeting with Hacked Off, seeks to impose a regulator using the ancient anti-democratic instruments of the Crown, the royal prerogative and the Her Majesty’s Privy Council. As I noted on spiked at the time when the Royal Charter was first proposed in February 2013: ‘Anybody with a passing knowledge of the history of the struggle for press freedom in Britain should recoil from the merest suggestion of the Crown and the Privy Council becoming once more involved in press regulation, however formal their role. It evokes grim shadows of the old system of Crown licensing of the press, started by Henry VIII in 1529 and expanded under successive monarchs, under which nothing could be published without official permission.’ Those who defied the Crown licensers could expect to be sent to the Tower or the gallows.

There are no immediate plans to reintroduce such harsh punishments for errant journalists and publishers (much as some might like to). But the Royal Charter is backed by a new law which threatens those who do not sign up to the politicians’ system with the prospect of suffering ‘exemplary damages’ in court. Despite this, most major newspaper and magazine publishers have understandably rejected the politicians’ system and are setting up their own Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Now we are faced with the shameful spectacle of those who claim to be liberal-minded intellectuals openly demanding that the press accept a system of state-backed regulation via the Royal Charter. If these people had even a ‘passing knowledge of the history of the struggle for press freedom’ in Britain, they might know that it was those who wanted freedom of thought and social change that fought for the right to write, publish and read what they chose.

By contrast, the dominant view among today’s illiberal liberals is ‘I believe in press freedom, BUT…’. It is a consensus captured by the author Ian McEwan, who said in support of the Hacked Off declaration for regulation by Royal Charter that ‘The right to freedom of expression is the bedrock of our liberty. Without it, none of our other cherished rights could have been talked or written into existence. But no freedom is absolute and all rights carry responsibilities.’ They want freedom of expression and of the press of course, but only for those considered ‘responsible’ – such as themselves.

The truth is, however, that freedom of speech and of the press are indivisible liberties, and unless we defend them for all we will be able to do so for none at all. Nor should anybody’s right to freedom of expression be deemed dependent on the fulfilment of responsibilities or duties imposed from without. There might be plenty of problems with the UK press. But contrary to the myth at the heart of the debate about regulation today, it is not and never has been ‘too free’.

Some 80 years ago, George Dangerfield wrote his famous history, The Strange Death of Liberal England. Today, it seems we are witnessing the strange suicide of liberal Britain, as those who like to think of themselves as free-thinking radicals and champions of human rights publicly declare their ‘weakening of the desire for liberty’. They have effectively signed a death warrant for liberal Britain by tossing away the most fundamental liberty of all, freedom of expression and of the press.

Remember their names, and the next time any of these illiberal liberals tries to claim that they are radicals, rebels or freedom fighters, let us remind the world that they are fully signed-up supporters of an unfree press by order of the Crown.

Here is the list of names backing the Declaration of Support of the Royal Charter on press regulation:

Alan Bennett, writer | Alan Hollinghurst, author | Albert Scardino, journalist | Alfonso Cuaron, filmmaker | Andrew Gamble, academic | Angus Macqueen, filmmaker | Anna Van Heeswijk, women’s group | Anthony Seldon – historian | Antony Beevor, Historian | Artemis Cooper, writer | Baroness Beeban Kidron, filmmaker | Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, human-rights campaigner | Baroness Onora O’Neill, philosopher | Baroness Sheila Hollins, parliamentarian and mother of Abigail Witchells | Baroness Valentine, third sector | Bella Freud, designer | Ben Elton, comedian and author | Benedict Cumberbatch, actor | Bianca Jagger, campaigner | Bill Forsyth, filmmaker | Bob Geldof KBE, musician and campaigner | Brian Paddick, victim of press abuse | Brian Woods, filmmaker | Bryan Adams, musician | Carolyn Fairbairn, businessperson | Catherine Smadja, free speech | Christopher Eccleston, actor | Christopher Jefferies, victim of press abuse | Claire Tomalin, writer | Clare Balding, broadcaster | Craig Raine, poet | Dame AS Byatt, author | Danny Boyle, filmmaker | David Baddiel, comedian | David Gilmour, musician | David Heyman, filmmaker | David Mitchell, author | David Tennant, actor | David Yelland, editor (recovering) | Dawn French, comedian | Dennis Stevenson, philanthropist | Dr Madeleine Coy, academic | Dr Tim Markham, academic | Edward Benthall, finance | Edward Bowles, father of Sebastian | Emma Thompson, screenwriter & actress | Eric Idle, comedian | Graham Norton, broadcaster | Guy Chambers, record producer | Guy Ritchie, filmmaker | Helen Belcher, LBGT Group | Helen Fielding, author | HJK, victim of press abuse | Hugh Grant, actor | Ian McEwan, author | Imran Khan, human-rights campaigner | Irvine Welsh, writer | J K Rowling, author | Jacqui Hames, victim of press abuse | Jake & Dinos Chapman, artists | Jake Arnott, author | James Blunt, musician | James Fox, writer | Jane Winter, victim of press abuse | Jeanette Winterson, writer | Jemima Khan, journalist | Jeremy King, entrepreneur | Jo Brand, comedian | Joan Smith, journalist | Joanna Lumley, actor and campaigner | John Bishop, comedian | John Bowers QC, law | John Cleese, comedian and writer | John Finneman, comedian | John Pilger, journalist | John Willis, filmmaker | Julian Mitchell, author | Karen Ingala Smith, women’s group | Kate & Gerry McCann, victims of press abuse | Katie Hickman, writer | Kazuo Ishiguro, author | Krish Majumdar filmmaker | Lee Hall, writer | Lisa Appignanesi writer | Lord Peter Goldsmith, law | Lord Puttnam filmmaker | Lord VS Naipaul, author | Louis de Bernieres, author | Maggie Smith, actress | Marcus Brigstocke comedian | Margaret & Jim Watson, bereaved parents and victims of press abuse | Margaret Aspinall, Hillsborough campaigner | Mark Lewis, law | Michael Apted, filmmaker | Michael Frayn, author | Michael Mansfield QC, human-rights lawyer | Michael Ondaatje, writer | Michael Palin, comedian & broadcaster | Mike Leigh, filmmaker | Miranda Hart, comedian and author | Mo George, victim of press abuse | Monica Ali, author | Neal Ascherson, journalist | Nick Davies, freelance journalist | Nicolas Kent, theatre director | Nigel Newton, publisher | Paloma Faith, musician | Pat Loughrey, university warden | Patricia & Phil Bernal, co-founder of Protection against Stalking and mother of Clare Bernal | Paul Dadge, victim of press abuse | Peter Burden, author | Peter Capaldi, actor | Peter Jukes, journalist | Peter Kosminsky, filmmaker | Peter Morgan, writer | Peter Tatchell, human-rights campaigner | Philip Pullman, author | Polly Sansom, author | Polly Toynbee, journalist | Professor Alastair Mullis, academic | Professor Anthony Smith, broadcaster & academic | Professor Chris Frost, academic | Professor Colin Blakemore, scientist | Professor Conor Gearty, human-rights lawyer | Professor David Hutchison , computer scientist | Professor David Nutt, scientist | Professor Frank Webster, academic | Professor Gavin Phillipson, lawyer and academic | Professor Graham Murdock, academic | Professor Greg Philo, academic | Professor Ian Hargreaves, academic | Professor Ivor Gaber, academic | Professor James Curran, academic | Professor Jean Seaton, academic | Professor John Corner, academic | Professor John Tulloch, victim of press abuse | Professor Joni Lovenduski, academic | Professor Julian Petley, academic | Professor Justin Lewis, academic | Professor Kevin Marsh, journalist | Professor Máire Messenger Davies, academic | Professor Matthew Flinders, academic | Professor Natalie Fenton, academic | Professor Richard Dawkins, author | Professor Steven Barnett, academic | Professor Stuart Allan, scientist | Professor Suzanne Franks, academic | Rich Peppiatt, comedian | Richard Branson, entrepreneur | Richard Charkin, publisher | Richard Curtis, filmmaker | Richard Horton, Nightjack blogger | Riz Ahmed, actor | Robert Llewellyn, actor | Roger Graef, filmmaker | Rory Bremner, comedian | Rose Unlacke, designer | Rowan Williams, former archbishop | Rt Rev Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield | Rufus Hound, comedian | Russell Brand, comedian | Salman Rushdie, author | Sam Mendes, filmmaker | Sandi Toksvig, broadcaster | Sandy Naime, museum director & writer | Sarah Green, women’s group | Sean Mathias, theatre director | Sean Sutcliffe, entrepreneur | Sebastian Conran, industrial designer | Sigrid Rausing, publisher | Sir Alan Ayckbourn, playwright | Sir Alan Parker, filmmaker | Sir Anthony Salz, law | Sir Cyril Chantler, doctor | Sir David Attenborough, broadcaster and naturalist | Sir David Hare, playwright | Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, human-rights campaigner | Sir Ian McKellen, actor | Sir Jonathan Miller, writer | Sir Michael Holroyd, biographer | Sir Nicholas Hytner, theatre director | Sir Ranulph Fiennes, writer and explorer | Sir Simon Rattle, conductor | Sir Simon Robertson, business | Sir Stephen Sedley, jurist | Sir Tim Smit, environmentalist | Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, philanthropist | Sir Tom Stoppard, playwright | Sophie Bennett, feminist campaigner | Stephen Daldry, film and theatre director | Stephen Frears, filmmaker | Stephen Fry, writer and broadcaster | Steve Coogan, comedian and writer | Sue Roberts, Hillsborough campaigner | Sue Stapely, law | Susana Giner, youth group | Tamsin Allen, law | Terence Conran, designer | Terrence Tehranian, entrepreneur | Terry Gilliam, filmmaker | Terry Jones, comedian and filmmaker | Tony Robinson, actor & broadcaster | Victoria Wood, writer & comedian | Will Hutton, journalist & former editor | William Boyd, author | William Sieghart, publisher | Willy Russell, playwright | Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist | Zoe Margolis, victim of press abuse

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.

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Topics Free Speech


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