Leading article

Why we won’t sign

1 December 2012

Anyone picking up a newspaper in recent days will have noticed that the press has been writing a lot about itself. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press practices and ethics has created anxiety at a time when newspapers were already haemorrhaging sales and influence. David Cameron’s government’s response to the report is nervously awaited, and a group of 42 Tory MPs is urging him to seize a ‘once-in-a-generation’ chance to regulate the press. They threaten to rebel if he doesn’t. The Prime Minister will be vilified whatever he decides to do.

As the oldest continuously published weekly in the English language, The Spectator has seen this all before. The technology changes, but the principles do not. We lambasted the Sunday Times in 1829 for putting the free press at risk with sloppy libels. We are also familiar with the Nick Clegg trick: to declare commitment to a fierce and independent press, while trying to undermine it. In 1833 we criticised the vainglorious Lord Brougham, then Lord Chancellor, for seeking to ‘rivet fetters upon the press which he has so often eloquently eulogised as the main bulwark of our liberties’.

What is new in 2012 is that so many parliamentarians seem unaware of the principle at stake. In their letter demanding regulation, the 42 Tories express bafflement at the ‘obsessive argument’ against statutory regulation. But there is a reason why leaders from Thomas Jefferson onwards have ‘obsessed’ about press freedom: it is, as Churchill put it, ‘the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize’.

No right-thinking person can fail to be appalled at the hacking scandal. The -Leveson inquiry has given us a shocking glimpse into a 21st-century crime. The boom in mobile phones and email accounts has led to a massive black market in illegal information. Hacking is a global criminal industry, for which newspapers are just one client. Ex-hackers explain how stolen secrets can be sold to anyone from cuckolded husbands to insurance company investigators.


But tackling this crime is a matter for the police, not for a press regulator. Laws have been tightened to prevent journalists buying from hackers, and the punishment upgraded from a fine to a jail sentence. But there is no logical link between (already illegal) phone hacking and parliament giving itself the power to set the terms under which the press operates.

While England established the principle of press freedom, the United States did most to codify it under the constitution. And James Madison, the father of that constitution, still has the best answer for those who talk about abuse of freedom of the press. Abuse, he said, ‘is inseparable from the proper use of everything — and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press’. Better to leave a few noxious branches on the tree of press freedom than to prune and ‘injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits’.

Today, laws intended to stop the worst excesses of the tabloids could end by exerting a chilling effect on the rest of press. Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it can be counted on to expand them later. The language being used by the enemies of press freedom in Britain today is positively Orwellian: the state should merely ‘guarantee independence’ of the press regulator. The idea of benign ‘statutory regulation’ was advocated by MPs in 1952 and The Spectator vigorously opposed it then, too. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’

That is what The Spectator will now do. If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

Some newspapers may take the same view, especially as they mutate into digital form. On current trends the Guardian’s printed edition will run out of readers in February 2020, the Daily Express in May 2019 and the Independent in April 2014. Should they morph into a website (or an iPad app), who will regulate them? And how? Britain’s best-read political website, Guido Fawkes, is domiciled in Ireland. If the fusion of print and digital means the rules of the game need to be redrawn, then it is an ideal time to reapply the principles set down by Milton’s Areopagitica, which encapsulated the doctrine of press freedom three centuries ago.

It may be politically difficult for David Cameron to err on the side of liberty, given the loud and angry voices demanding that he make his swoop now. But the Prime Minister is, at heart, a pragmatist and will realise that statutory regulation of the press would achieve very little — save to crush an ancient liberty that has survived every one of his predecessors. The Spectator would have no part in it.

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  • http://twitter.com/SHMcGregor Steven McGregor

    Thank you! Very proud to be a Spectator subscriber in times like this. I noticed that the Sun this morning, in quoting Benjamin Franklin, listed him as an ‘Electricity Pioneer.’ So also good to see some of the Founders getting the attention they deserve as political thinkers. They were building on European traditions anyway. Now to tackle some of the other forms of tyranny here in Britain…

    • anglophobe

      The Founders were mostly building on Scottish enlightenment thought. In those days Scotland was a beacon of civilization, and its elite had the finest minds and worthiest character of any in the world.

      Sic transit gloria mundi.

      • The Sage

        How times have changed, then.

  • alabenn

    a group of 42 Tory MPs.
    Can we have their names or dare you not publish them?

  • paulus

    Well im going to join in your defence, how can you regulate the press ? anyone can statrt up a newspaper tomorrow, how do you regulate what people think?

    • ukfred

      How do you regulate what people think? It is called political correctness and if you wonder about it, think of the words that were in use in the 1960’s whose use is frowned on, if not likely to have one banished from polite society, today.

      • gelert

        PC is cultural Marxism. The bastards have won.

        • ukfred

          No, they have not won. They only win if we comply. If we use sites based off-shore, then they will start by trying to fine those who “break their rule” but if we refuse to pay the fines, then they will have to imprison us. Eventually there will be such overcrowding in the prisons that we will cause the system to break down.

          • gelert

            What I was referring to was the fact that UK society is in the iron grip of political correctness. What the Marxists failed to achieve at the ballot-box they have achieved through control of the media and changing society by these means. The boat sailed long ago.

  • chris_xxxx

    Well done to the Spectator. Who are these 42 shits from the Tory party?

    • http://twitter.com/ukgoldbug Gold Bug

      A little odd to just blame the 42 Tories when the entirety of the Labour and Liberal parties have supported this catastrophic agreement. There are an awful lot of politicians that want to hide their indiscretions from all sides of the house. Their whole working life is dedicated to theft, lies and coercion so this is a major victory for them.

      • NeilMc1

        You can’t blame Labour and the Libdems, they are socialists and they have worked toward gagging the press all their lives. It’s the obvious step toward a one party socialist state, where the ruling elite can act with impunity, with no redress.

        The 42 ‘so called’ Tories, have allowed revenge for the expenses scandal to override their deepest held beliefs and will hopefully be deselected by their constituencies.

    • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.stevens.790 Barbara Stevens

      I agree with Gold Bug, 42 Tories may be disappointing, but look at the Labour party and the Lib Dems joining together, and think if in power the damage they could do not only to a free press but this country as a whole. Dangerous coupling, we must resist this whole heartedly.

  • http://twitter.com/WillHoneycomb Will Honeycomb

    Bravo again.
    This change to the law is unfathomable and perilous. Thank God for the Spectator.

    • FMarion

      What could possibly go wrong with a bunch of politicians deciding what may–and what may not–be published? They’ve done so well with the economy, immigration, education and all the rest, after all.

  • Nick

    Dear Spectator.
    While I love reading your magazine both online & in the flesh so to speak.And while I commend the magazine for continuously printing excellent news & articles,I feel that I must say this to you…..SHUT UP AND RUDDY WELL GET ON WITH IT!!
    The trouble with you reporters…….because that’s all you are,is that you think too highly of yourselves,you act like you are above the law (and let’s face it,many of you ARE above the law)& you can’t take it when you’ve been caught out.
    The press have been terrorising & bullying both celebrities & the general public for years & at last something has been done about it.
    The press have ruined people’s lives for no good reason other than publish a poxy story about someones sex life or because celebrity A was bonking celebrity B.Who gives a —k as to who was bonking who?
    I’m so glad to see the press squirming & manking….serves you all ruddy well right.
    PS.I couldn’t give a toss who Abi Titmus was having sex with.

    • Colonel Mustard

      “The trouble with you reporters…….because that’s all you are,is that you think too highly of yourselves,you act like you are above the law (and let’s face it,many of you ARE above the law)& you can’t take it when you’ve been caught out.”

      All of which could be applied equally to politicians…

      • Nick

        Hello Colonel Mustard.I agree with you.But what difference does that make? The press have been & still are out of control & have no mercy or compunction when it comes to ruining people’s lives.I forget his name but look at the landlord in Bristol who was wrongly blamed for that ladies murder a couple of years ago.One reason the press picked on him was because he wore a bit of hair dye.I couldn’t give a toss if he wears hair dye…….This is England so he should be able to get on with what he wants ( as long as he doesn’t break the law) without the press vilifying him.

        And I still don’t care who Abi Titmus has sex with….but her sex life was splashed all over the papers…….Is that good journalism?

  • Stroudy

    Thank you Spectator. I am ashamed to be a member of the Tory party after seeing Cameron’s weakness. Keep up the fight. Don’t give in.

  • Swiss Bob

    A very brave stance let down by reality.

    Neather anyone?

  • gelert

    Well said.

    I believe Guido’s website is based in California, where he is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to free speech.

    • NeilMc1

      I believe his website is based in Ireland, but the server is in California. He then suggests that to shut him down, the UK government will have to send a gunboat to California. Don’t think we have any boats that can go that far to sea, and certainly none with guns on board due to H&S, so I think we are safe.

      But it is the likes of Guido and Fraser that will fight for our freedom from the political class.

      • gelert

        You’re right.
        Apparently the owner of something called Popbitch has said that she will do the same.

        • NeilMc1

          That’s good news indeed. I checked “Popbitch” and it turns out they have some hard hitting articles on Pope look-a-likeys, and Sea Otters that shoot hoops. Our democracy is safe!

          • gelert

            We’re all in this together !

    • ukfred

      The legislation is designed to apply to any website whose content is aimed at the UK or its citizens, irrespective of where the server is situated.

  • Andy

    I totally agree with you. Well said.

    The shame is that it had to be said in the first place.

  • MarinerAncien

    Lord Fowler, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Caroline Spelman, George Eustice, Penny Mordaunt, Nadhim Zahawi, Zac Goldsmith, Robert Buckland, Andrew Bingham, Adam Afriyie, Neil Parish, Rehman Chishti, Brian Binley, Jackie Doyle-Price, Stephen Metcalfe, Oliver Colvile, Mike Weatherly, Sheryll Murray, Claire Perry, Gary Streeter, Gareth Johnson, James Morris, George Freeman, Andrea Leadsom, Marcus Jones, Bob Stewart, Nicholas Soames, Guto Bebb, Geoffrey Cox, Crispin Blunt, Angela Watkinson, Gerald Howarth, David Morris, Mark Garnier, Mark Field, Henry Bellingham, Gavin Barwell, Jesse Norman, Chris Skidmore, Nicola Blackwood, Paul Uppal, Simon Hart, Lord Ryder (Richard)

  • Haldane1

    I found myself agreeing with your every word, as I did with this piece from today’s ‘I’ paper:

    “It is a dispiriting saga, marked by the manufactured outrage and hatefulness that is symptomatic of what passes for political debate today. At its heart lies a press that has violated the trust once placed in it, and shown that it has been unwilling to regulate itself with real teeth, against a victim group that argues through personal experience that freedom of the press has been a catch-all for the freedom to exploit personal lives for profit.

    The greatest truism in this sorry saga is that with freedom comes responsibility. Parts of the press have so frequently abused that maxim that, like a naughty child, they need to be threatened with losing that freedom in order to behave better. Remember this as you watch the unedifying scaremongering and posturing that will continue inexorably in the wake of Monday night’s fudge.”

  • Tom Luddington

    100% Agree. Please name the Tory MP’s against.

  • Tom Luddington

    My ex and her parents tried to regulate the inside of my head. But then they did champion Hugo Chavez and have a huge poster of Lenin on their wall.

    • ukfred

      Be thankful she is your ex, then.

  • Colonel Mustard

    “The Kremlin-funded broadcaster Russia Today described the guidelines as a “threat to press freedom”. The reaction came after the cross-party agreement was attacked by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the international body that polices human rights.”

    The Three Stooges of the stage-managed agenda that has just trampled on democracy, Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, will congratulate themselves when they should hang their heads in collective shame. Especially Clegg who has the bare faced impertinence to describe himself as a “Liberal Democrat”. Ha!

  • Nick

    Down with the gutter press who attack people for no good reason.
    Up with the press who publish good honest journalism.
    And I still don’t care who Abi Titmus has sex with.

    • gelert

      Nick doth protest too much, methinks -:)

      • Nick

        Are you calling me fat? I have got yuman rights you know.
        And I STILL don’t care who Abi Titmus had sex with.Ho Ho Ho! :-)

        • gelert

          I don’t believe you !!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/barbara.stevens.790 Barbara Stevens

    I am so glad to hear that this paper will not take part in, which is effectively, a ruse to aid politicians to decieve the public. We all know the extent of their behaviour and if not for a free press we would never have been told. Are they at it again?
    No, I hope many more papers will refuse to take part, it’s not needed and is against all we know in this country. A few have gone off the rails but that does not mean a whole industry and it’s employees should pay the price. Those that broke the law are being dealt with under the present law, that should be enough. Once MPs get their noses into anything it turns sour, watch this space and sense the smell?

  • ukfred

    This needed to be said. Thank you.

    The 42 Tories need to be named and deselected. Unfortunately we should always expect the Liberals of today to oppose classical Liberal positions and the less said about the control freaks that are the Labour Party, the better.

    Cameron, just when he does not need it, has handed another tranche of votes to Nigel Farage and UKIP. What we need now is for a libertarian party to campaign on the right for British citizens to bear arms to keep their politicians in check.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.gerard.900 Anthony Gerard

    Hopefully, The Spectator and The Telegraph will now start reporting about the dealings of its owners, The Barclay Brothers.

    Any journalist who questions the tax affairs of the Barclay twins is immediately threatened by lawyers.

    Let’s see Britain’s free press writing about their foreign Billionaire owners – and we’ll soon see how independent and free from their owner’s interference they really are.

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