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The Corpse in the Newsroom


I see that Charlie is pre-occupied with sterner stuff, so I will trespass briefly on his usual turf, namely the decline and fall of freedom of speech in modern England. Toby Young, the social critic and author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People – a memoir of his time at Vanity Fair — has just written a strong and subtle warning against the onrushing campaign to impose official regulation on the British media in his Daily Telegraph blog here

Young opens by noticing something that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody else has noticed — that the George Orwell Prize for Political Journalism, to be awarded shortly, is administered by the Media Standards Trust which happens to be the body that launched the “Hacked Off” campaign to regulate the press. He then asks if it is appropriate that a body that favors press censorship should really be awarding a prize named after one of the most distinguished exponents of its liberty.

If you doubt Orwell’s standing here (and I imagine that very few people will do so), Young provides an Orwell quote from the 1940s: “Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time).” And if you doubt that government censorship is being threatened, he gives chapter and verse on what the coalition government and interested pressure groups are discussing with newspaper editors for possible inclusion in legislation. Much the most worrying example to me, as an occasional Fleet Street editor, was the proposal in Lord Leveson’s report that third-party pressure groups should be able to intervene in the regulatory process and that the regulator should be able to assist victims of discriminatory reporting “in the spirit of equalities legislation.” These clauses could be — and because they could be, they ultimately would be — interpreted so as to enable pressure groups and political opponents to edit large parts of a newspaper, insisting on long corrective letters to the editor and specifying on which pages they would be placed. Reporters would increasingly write to avoid their objections. Press freedom would gradually shrivel.

All that is important, but the single best point made by Young is that Orwell had actually predicted the kind of people who would find press freedom increasingly irksome, even intolerable, and seek to crush it by degrees: “At any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left.’” And that is the case today. Orwell’s dominant orthodoxy in modern Britain is composed of exactly the same kind of high-minded, puritanical, and leftist intellectuals — these days in media studies and cultural studies rather than in economics — who then infested the BBC and the New Statesman. They are the practitioners of “political correctness” constructed on the absurd doctrine that there is a right not to be offended. They impose it wherever they have power, as they do in the academy and increasingly in the corporation. Thus far, however, the First Amendment in America and the Fleet Street tradition of a lively, combative, fearless, and — yes — vulgar press in Britain have prevented their total victory. Orwell would have been the defender of the press on all these points — including the vulgarity. As Young points out, his picture of the common man in everyday life — “His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures” sounds awfully like a reader of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid Sun.

So if statutory regulation of the media à la Leveson is eventually implemented by the current Lib-Con Coalition, the corpse in the newsroom will look very like George Orwell.