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British Liberty Wakes Up


The British government’s misbegotten proposal for statutory regulation of the media inched towards passage on Monday with a debate in the House of Lords. Although it will probably stagger, wounded, onto the Statute Book, it is starting to look as if, in the words of one peer, “it will not endure.” This time last week the Labour, Liberal-Democrat, and Tory leaders, “inebriated with the exuberance of their own verbosity,” were confident that they had overwhelming public support for their shifty crackdown on freedom of the press. In a House of Commons debate, the measure was supported by a vast majority of all parties against a mere 14 Tory MPs. Centuries of liberty for the press were being abandoned almost carelessly.

On the following day, however, second thoughts began to set in, and an unexpectedly large list of opponents emerged onto the public square to criticize the legislation and even to assert that they would not submit to its regulatory procedures. Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, was the first on the field to say that he would not sign up to its rules. Nelson could be dismissed by the government as an isolated libertarian journalist, however, because he had earlier warned that he would not abide by any statutory regulations which The Spectator had opposed for several hundred years. All the same, his bold front-page cover saying simply “NO” attracted much attention. What surprised government ministers, however, was that Nelson was joined by the editors of the satirical-cum-investigative magazine, Private Eye, and of The Economist, which between them cover the waterfront from Bohemia-in-Soho to the Westminster Village. Major newspaper groups, including some that had apparently favored the legislation until they actually saw it, called in their lawyers to advise on whether they too could ignore the official regulator and establish a voluntary system of self-regulation in competition with it. They were self-interested, of course; but their acquiescence had been taken for granted. Now that it was being withdrawn, the proposed law suddenly looked vulnerable, and not at all the sure thing it had seemed on the night of the parliamentary debate.

Those with more elevated and/or independent reputations now jumped on the bandwagon–Sir Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Times, a Guardian columnist, and the chairman of the National Trust, who was perhaps the most significant since his strong criticism of the legislation undermined the impression that Britain’s “great and good” were united in its support. Criticisms too came from abroad: The New York Times denounced it and an OSCE official worried aloud that it might be contrary to the European Declaration of Human Rights. And the tabloids promptly suggested mischievously that dictators would shortly be inviting Lord Justice Leveson, its intellectual author (if that is the right phrase), to propose new constitutions for them modeled on laws passed by the Mother of Parliaments.

#more#The more people looked at the actual legislative proposals, the more they looked hasty, ill-considered, and unworkable. Party leaders and ministers were embarrassed when it was pointed out that the law would not regulate major newspapers only; no, it would regulate bloggers too. That thought had never occurred to them apparently, nor to Lord Justice Leveson whose multi-volume report devoted only a few pages to the new digital journalism. How then had this massive regulatory overreach made its way into the legislation? The answer was that the proposals had been drawn up late at night (and early in the morning) in the office of the leader of the Labour opposition, Ed Miliband, who was supported at the meeting by the Liberal-Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and by four advisers from the leftish celebrity pressure group “Hacked Off,” with the Tories represented by a single minister, Oliver Letwin, while David Cameron slept.

People are now waking up to what happened last week. Labor, the Liberal-Democrats, and Hacked Off were united in their desire to control a press freedom that they consider an obstacle to imposing their cultural outlook and policies on the voters. They succeeded because the Tories were too idle, cowardly, or dim to grasp what was happening and stop it. But as the proposals became generally known, many people who have no time for the tabloids or the “Murdoch press” or the Daily Mail grew alarmed. The public mood changed. Even Hacked Off — which had been pushing Miliband, Clegg, and their parties into increasingly illiberal postures — felt obliged to disavow some of the law’s provisions. And there is now a likelihood that, when the various official regulatory committees come into being, they will be boycotted and rendered irrelevant by newspapers, magazine, blogs, and whatever other news and opinion providers spring from the ground.

What is needed to help push this movement along — and ultimately to get the law repealed if it cannot be halted in this parliamentary session — is a larger rebellion by MPs, especially Tories, but also liberal-minded Labour and Liberal Democrats as the bill trundles along. And if Nigel Farage and UKIP can make this a strong popular cause in their work outside Parliament, that too may help pour encourager les autres.

In the meantime, opponents of the new law can take hope from some newly released documents (cited by the Black Dog columnist in the Daily Mail) showing that in 1981, the famous comedian Bruce Forsyth — anticipating Hugh Grant and “Hacked Off” — asked Margaret Thatcher to protect public figures from intrusive coverage by the tabloids. She replied: “I share your feelings about the need to maintain standards . . . but equally it is of crucial importance to keep the press in this country free from government interference. I do not think it is possible to draft a law to deal with these matters. The real sanction, of course, is not to buy the offending paper or magazine.”

But Margaret Thatcher, as is well known, never slept.


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