Whose freedom? Whose press?

Everyone is a journalist now – which makes licensing of newspapers an obsolete idea

3 November 2012

A love for freedom of the press inspired Milton, Voltaire, Jefferson, Madison, Mill and Orwell. Ringing declarations of the right of citizens to read and write what they choose have run through constitutions and charters of liberties. Modern Britain being the way it is, however, the lofty rhetoric of the past has sunk to debates about celebs and breasts. Specifically, the breasts on page three of The Sun, and the tits who publish them.

Evan Harris, tribune of the Hacked Off campaign, makes a plausible argument that an effective press regulator could ban page three girls. After Lord Justice Leveson hears all the evidence of mass wrongdoing by journalists, he is likely to recommend a media authority that would treat journalists as if they were professionals akin to doctors or lawyers. Once that step has been taken, Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, could say that no employer allows boorish men to stick up pictures of naked women in the workplace. They demean and intimidate female colleagues. But the Sun still prints pictures ‘it would never put on the walls of its own newsroom’. Why would a reputable regulator overseeing journalists committed to new professional standards allow that?

The battles around Leveson are likely to turn vicious. Fleet Street knows how much it may lose, and knows that it has no one to blame but itself. Not a single hacking story the Leveson inquiry has told us about was in the public interest. Journalists and their managers had the powers of a secret police force to monitor private conversations. All they did was hack the phones of celebrities and the victims of crime. They cannot produce in their defence one example of illegal surveillance being used to expose an abuse of power or corruption of government.

It is not even as if everyone demanding regulation is an authoritarian. The academics around the Hacked Off campaign are in my experience products of late-20th–century leftism. Their only enemy is corporate power, and they can always find reasons to be somewhere else when basic liberties need defending. Nor do I see why the freedoms of this country should be torn up because Hacked Off’s star witness Max Mosley believes that if a gentleman wishes to hire whores by the half-dozen to beat his bottom to a pulp, it is nobody’s business but his own. But Evan Harris could not be more different. He is one of the most impressive and principled politicians I know: and a friend and comrade in the campaign for libel reform. Meanwhile Brian Cathcart, the driving force behind Hacked Off, was a serious journalist before he became an academic, and published a fine investigation into the deaths of soldiers at the Deepcut barracks.

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In other words, if you want to take them on, you need to do better than reproduce the self-interested snarls of wounded Fleet Street editors. You make a start when you grasp that journalism has never been and cannot be a profession. Freedom of the press is the freedom of all citizens to write and broadcast. Once that freedom was as risible as the old joke that capitalism meant that everyone was free to book a room at the Ritz. In theory, everyone had the right to enjoy the freedom to publish. In practice, only the employees of public or private media corporations could exercise it. Journalism was not a profession but it was a kind of guild. If the Leveson inquiry had happened 30 years ago, it could have proposed tighter regulation of the journalists’ club. Now laws on the press affect everyone who blogs, tweets and posts. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we are all journalists now.

Leveson knows it. And the contortions of those who hope for statutory regulation suggest that they know it too. They can no longer define a ‘newspaper’. Is it an established title or is it every news site and blog published in Britain? They try to escape modernity by using advertising and readership ‘thresholds’ to determine which sites should fall under the ambit of the new regulator and which should not. They fail to understand that the most obscure blogs can receive huge audiences if links and search engines direct readers to a sensational post. In desperation, they say that newspapers can do more harm than isolated bloggers or Tweeters. This is not true either. Malicious posts on local sites concern the clients of libel lawyers as much as the writing in the national press.

As with legitimate constraints on free speech, so with illegitimate suppression. Case after case now shows that the battle against censorship has moved online. The Crown Prosecution Service’s persecution of Paul Chambers for joking about blowing up an airport and the Trafford Housing Trust’s decision to punish a Christian employee for voicing his opposition to gay marriage on Facebook are the new free-speech battles for the 21st century.

I do not wish to pre-empt his lordship, but Leveson seems to want to have an exclusive form of control for kite-marked approved newspapers which are covered by his new regulator. Newspapers that refuse to join — and Private Eye –may be one — and everyone else who writes on the web will continue to suffer the punitive costs of our archaic libel laws.

This strikes me as not only contrary to natural justice but as an anachronism in itself. The arrival of the web demands wholesale legal reform. We need cheap means to resolve disputes — and if that means cutting costs by substituting the continental system of inquisitorial magistrates for our ferociously expensive adversarial system in free speech cases, so be it. We need independent judges to hear cases rather than regulators who are susceptible to political pressure. Above all, we need consistency. If Hacked Off wants to ban page three, it should be forced to make the argument for banning all images of naked women everywhere.

In their hearts everyone around Leveson knows this. The peeping toms who bugged celebrities are not in trouble because they broke professional codes and moral guidelines — though they did. They are in trouble because they broke the law of the land, which applies to everyone.

At a time when all can publish, we need one law for all. Anything else will seem as out of date as hot metal presses.

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Show comments
  • Mike Perez

    The only possible conclusion then, is an independent regulator backed by statute. The Hunt/Black proposal for a regulator whose power comes from a contract between the newspapers is absurdly inappropriate in the internet age.

  • sarah

    “Why would a reputable regulator overseeing journalists committed to new professional standards allow that?”

    Via the medium of designing regulations that respect the right to freedom of expression and to offend/incite against/harm women of course. Until anti-hate laws include sex, that will continue unabated never fear.

  • sarah

    If a single one of our newspapers had published the Mohammed cartoons I might be more inclined to think they serve some kind of bulwark against the abuse of power. But as none of them did, I’m left with the impression that they are the abuse of power.

  • sarah

    The picture in this article is really pissing me off. The hypocrisy and lack of self-knowledge shown by it is really quite astounding.

  • Kevin

    Evan Harris could not be more different. He is one of the most impressive and principled politicians I know.

    Having principles is one thing. Telling us what they are is another. He has been described by some journalists as being in favour of abortion and euthanasia and of the view (and I am paraphrasing somewhat here) that matter comes from nothing and anyone who holds the contrary view should be removed from power. I do not wish to be libellous, so I am open to correction on any of this.

    If he is against Page Three, though, then he appears to have at least one admirable principle, and I do not see why he would be inconsistent in ignoring other similar publications. If you are going to appeal to “Britannia” in your cause, you should consider the traditional view of her island that Peeping Tom behaved dishonourably.

  • Tom Goodman

    You show Britannia but you list only English thinkers and writers. You suppress Burns and Hume and John McLean and others . Shame on you for English imperialism.

    • Y Rhyfelwr Dewr

      What has that to do with anything? In an article about censorship, you want the author to squeeze in a couple of Scottish name drops for no purpose other than to humour some chippy Scots. What kind of narcissist are you?

      Why does somebody advocating politically correct name dropping to reflect the entirety of the United Kingdom fail to mention a single Welsh thinker and writer? Not even John Milton or Dylan Thomas. What’s the matter, Tom? Our Welsh writers not as good as your Scottish ones? Shame on your cultural snobbery.

  • rob

    “At a time when all can publish, we need one law for all”
    And a decent,honest and properly resourced police force and related agencies to enforce it?

  • Bob339

    None, not one, of the names you cite would ever have said a syllable in support of today’s press. The focus on Z- list celebrities; the lying by implication; the support of the insupportable; the intrusiveness; the banging on and on about empty affairs involving whores and fools who happen to be rich or (in) famous; the near-porn photos; the bribing of Met officers… These great men would have puked at the thought of it.
    They would have run miles from Murdoch, Black et al and the low-caliber human material that is employed by them. Shame on Cohen for his presumption!

  • http://donnachadelong.info Donnacha DeLong

    The irony of the use of an imperialist symbol as the image on this underlines the hypocrisy of it all. Back at the end of the the 18th Century, Liberals in Ireland started their own newspaper, the Northern Star – which was targeted by the British authorities and smashed by Loyalist militiamen. It’s just one of many attempts to create a free media in Ireland that were suppressed by the British authorities. The supposed “golden era” of British liberalism was based on repression of those under Britannia’s imperial control in Ireland. This kind of approach was endorsed by the great liberals, including Mill: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians…” This same imperial superiority complex fills the debate about Leveson as the independent model of regulation that’s working reasonably well in Ireland, with no restrictions on freedom of the press, is denounced as Stalinism or fascism by parts of the UK media when suggested for the big island. Even Index on Censorship, according to what’s on their website, regarded the Press Council of Ireland, backed by statute, as a bulwark against state interference in the media in 2008, yet oppose the same model in the UK.


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