Various press-fearing politicos and censorious celebrities wanted statute-backed regulators. But all national newspapers (bar the Guardian and Independent) backed the idea of self-regulation as an alternative to the system of state regulation floated by those politicians and Hacked Off in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
Now that the Privy Council is shredding those proposals, the question on everyone’s lips is: “What regulation will politicians introduce?” Will they, as many expect, push ahead with their own original plans to use a Royal Charter, with a “dab of statute” to set up an independent regulator that will have the power to force press outlets to publish prominent corrections and apologies or face huge fines?
These are the wrong questions. We shouldn’t be passively wondering “What will politicians do next?”, but angrily asking what earthly right they have to decide on the fate of the press in the first place.
The Leveson process was based on a warping of the relationship between politicians and the press that held good since the abolition of state licensing of newspapers more 300 years ago – a relationship in which the press held politicians to account, not vice versa. Announcing the setting up of Leveson in 2011, David Cameron said it is “vital that a free press can tell truth to power”, but it is “equally vital that those in power can tell truth to the press”.
Those chilling words informed Leveson, at which various members of the great and good lectured the press about what its “culture and ethics” ought to be. And thus we have arrived in a brave new Britain in which politicians police the press, rather than the other way round. It is this historic shift that allows them now to unilaterally decide how strictly the press should be regulated.
Hugh Grant, so allergic to press freedom that he once publicly fantasised about driving the tabloids “into the North Sea”, says a Charter-backed regulator would pose no threat to press freedom. Nonsense. Such a regulator would be able to strongarm publications to sign up, through the use of exemplary fines, and would have the power to punish severely any newspaper judged to have done something unethical.
That would have a chilling effect on the press, denting editors’ sense of daring, making them wonder constantly if some edgy report might earn them a £1m rap on the knuckles from the overlords of ethical journalism. The problem isn’t just illiberal politicians, but also the sheepishness of the press. In 1946, George Orwell said there were many “enemies of freedom of thought”, but the biggest problem was “the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves”.
Today, our leaders’ encroachments on press freedom are abetted by our own failure to put forward an unapologetic case for the right and necessity for the press to be, in Karl Marx’s words, “the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul”.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online.