The Corner

1771–2013: The Era of the Free Press in Britain

Before I saw this morning’s news, I happened to be in the midst of Tom Stoppard’s fine trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia, about the different lives of such 19th-century Russian revolutionary intellectuals as Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin. The third play, Salvage, which begins in the Hampstead home of Herzen (I’m still reading it; its action may yet move to Paris or Geneva), contains the following remark from Herzen to his fellow-exiles about their English hosts:

They invented personal liberty, and they know it, and they did it without having any theories about it. They value liberty because it’s liberty. So when the Republic collapsed, you socialists — (He nods to Blanc.) — and you bourgeois republicans — (He nods to Ledru-Rollin.) — ran straight for the Dover Ferry.

Failed revolutionaries and fleeing exiles will be running straight for different destinations in future. Today, Britain’s three major parties agreed on a shameful compromise to bring the fractious British press under official regulation for the first time since 1771, when John Wilkes — the English equivalent of John Peter Zenger — successfully established the right of newspapers to publish uncensored reporting of parliamentary and public affairs. It is a serious attack on freedom by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and a cowardly retreat in the face of that attack by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Tories.

The motives behind it are all too obvious. With all their flaws, Britain’s newspapers — not least the despised tabloids and the Daily Mail, hated for its strong defense of middle-class values — have uncovered a series of grave public scandals, including the fraudulent misuse of parliamentary expenses by MPs, that have embarrassed the politicians and the establishment. Dominic Sandbrook in the Mail details these recent examples of successful investigative journalism here.

Were there “excesses” by the tabloids that justified such regulatory intervention? Certainly there were excesses. The entire enterprise of press regulation was launched in response to the large-scale hacking of the telephones of celebrities and crime victims by journalists working for major media companies, notably but not solely News International. But the hacking of telephones was a crime, and about 60 journalists have been arrested and charged with it. Some have already gone to prison; more are likely to do so.

There was no need — and no logical justification — for the establishment of a large and long judicial inquiry under Lord Leveson. That was launched because Labour and Liberal Democrat parties wanted to get revenge on the conservative tabloids that they blame for their inability to keep working-class voters on the left-liberal plantation. They saw a chance to establish a system of press control that would protect them against the tabloids in future.

That temptation ran counter to all the things that liberals say and are supposed to believe. Nick Cohen, a liberal writer who values consistency, excoriates them here for their willingness to give up the ur-liberal principle of free speech and freedom of the media. But they have done exactly that in an undisguised and undeniable way. Cohen is wise enough to realize that one day they will regret this apostasy.

Cameron conceded the Leveson inquiry because he didn’t want to take the heat for resisting this campaign. That decision combined stupidity, cowardice, and lack of foresight, because Leveson might well produce a report proposing official regulation of the press, and Cameron would then have to fight a more important battle on weaker ground. That day has now arrived, and predictably enough, Cameron has surrendered all but entirely. Disturbing details continue to emerge: For instance, the regulator will have the power to order “corrections” to be published even when no persons or groups are criticized but when he thinks that an article is factually inaccurate.

And for those who thought that this would be aimed solely at “Murdoch” and “Dacre” (the proprietor of the Times and the editor of the Daily Mail respectively), there is the shock that this official regulation will apply to blogs if they include news-related material. Leveson is shorthand for the official supervision of all political opinion, as Guy Herbert of the libertarian blog Samizdata points out.

To be sure, this is only the first step. It is accompanied by assurances in the legislation that press freedom must be protected and by provisions that require a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament before the powers it contains are expanded in any way. But since all three major parties have agreed to support this legislation, these hurdles look far from insurmountable. Cameron has congratulated himself on the fact that this reform avoids the “need to write down in legislation the title, the definition, the functions, the power, the rules, or the composition of a new system of regulation.” All that will be done in the form of a Royal Charter. But if the Royal Charter is backed by legislation, as it is, that is a distinction in form only. The penalty is there anyway: Those media entities that fail to join the new regulatory system will face “exemplary” fines if their reports land them in court. What reporter or editor is likely to risk a story on parliamentary expenses or police brutality under such conditions?

All three party leaders are complicit in this enterprise even if David Cameron is involved due to timidity rather than malice. It is a very depressing prospect. Only Nigel Farage, of Ukip, seems to grasp the seriousness of the issues at stake. He is standing by his statement of a few months ago:

For this government, or any bunch of so-called politicians to support the legislative underpinning of a voluntary agreement to oversee the press would be a huge mistake, and the first step on a very slippery slope. Control of the media should not now, or ever, be in any way the responsibility of politicians. Any Government intervention almost always fails, as would this. It is about politicians creating a cosy world of silence where they can live and act in peace and behave without public accountability. It would be a huge mistake and be laughable in the age of the Internet. Just completely the wrong thing to do. . . . My own phone was hacked, but that is neither is neither here nor there. Things go wrong in the press, as they do in every walk of life and business, but we already have legal redress. Criminal actions are criminal actions, and are already covered by the law. Those of us in my position already have recourse to the law. We must not create anything that restricts freedom.

As matters now stand, we will have to elect Ukip if Britain is to remain a place to which European left-wingers and bureaucrats can flee when the Euro finally comes crashing down on their heads.


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