Regulating the Press under the Guise of Morality

“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” In this hammer-blow of a sentence, Lord Macaulay was speaking about Byron, whose life was a public scandal but whose gifts were great. People have been left to make up their minds for themselves where the balance lies between the man’s abuses of women and his poems.

Rebekah (why this deviant spelling?) Brooks and Andy Coulson are now the subject of a similar fit of morality. In the 1990s they were editors of a Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, whose owner was the press magnate Rupert Murdoch. The paper specialized in revelations about the sexual conduct, that is to say misconduct, of people thought to be celebrities, pop stars, television personalities, footballers, and such like. It came out that journalists or freelancers employed by the paper were paying corrupt policemen and civil servants for inside information while also hacking the telephones of all and sundry in the search for dirt. Such snooping and invasion of privacy is of course illegal. Accused of authorizing this behavior, Brooks and Coulson are on trial at the Old Bailey. If the jury finds them guilty, they will surely be sent to prison.

Selling in millions, the News of the World played a leading part in cheapening daily life. Loathsome as the practices of the paper were, even worse was the way it assumed that it was offering the British public what it wanted. Glorying in scandal-mongering, the paper pretended to be on a mission to cleanse filth. Readers could be titillated and feel good at the same time. Invited to be hypocrites, they were also being patronized as persons of so low a cultural level that they couldn’t be considered cultured at all.

There was no need to buy the paper and to be degraded by doing so. Mr. Murdoch closed it down. But it is not good enough apparently to let the court decide what responsibility Brooks and Coulson may have for hacking and paying bribes. As though responding to public outrage and under cover as guardians of morality, politicians are attempting to take control of the press. It’s become an issue of free speech that will be tested in court and afterwards. A commission of enquiry under a judge came up with a recommendation for strict regulation of the press, and this is to be established by a Royal Charter. In the light of the hard and historic battle to have free speech, it won’t work, but if it were to, then the News of the World was right to hold British culture in such contempt.

David Pryce-Jones — David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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