Cameron’s Royal Charter is no ally of press freedom

Brendan O’Neill
IS DAVID Cameron the new Tom Paine, bravely battling for press freedom? He’d like us to think so, as would his cheerers among the commentariat. They claim his proposed Royal Charter on press regulation is a liberty-loving document, certainly in comparison with the tabloid-muzzling measures demanded by Ed Miliband.

This view of Cameron is as mad and made up as the worst redtop fabulism. It shows how depressingly low our horizons have sunk when it comes to liberty. Far from laissez-faire, Cameron’s Royal Charter, which MPs discuss today, promises to implement all of Lord Leveson’s proposals – just not to back them by statute.

Like Leveson, Cameron calls for an hilariously oxymoronic system of “independent self-regulation”, not seeming to realise that, if regulation of the press is independent of the press, it isn’t self-regulation.

And the appointments panel that would decide who sits on Cameron’s “independent self-regulatory body” would “contain a substantial majority of members who are demonstrably independent of the press”. That is, the press would be overseen by outsiders; by, one imagines, those civil-society do-gooders who love wrapping things in red tape.

The new body would decide if there was a “sufficient public interest justification” for the invasion of a complaining individual’s privacy. Quite how it would tap into the minds of us, the public, and work out what we’re interested in, is not revealed. It seems the democratic-sounding tag “public interest” would be exploited to enforce a top-down view of what constitutes Acceptable Journalism.

The body could potentially force newspapers to publish material against their will. If a complainant and a paper fail to reach an agreement, the body could make the paper publish an apology, even deciding its “nature and extent”. As every serious fighter for free speech recognises, being made to publish is as illiberal as being prevented from doing so.

Any paper found to have committed a serious breach of rules could be fined £1m. That would have a terribly chilling effect on daring in the press. Who’d go after big stories if the methods required to get them could land you with a fat fine?

And it isn’t only big press players who would be watched by external pontificators. Cameron’s charter covers “websites containing news-related material”, including “gossip about celebrities”. Even blogs would be expected to sign up.

And if they don’t? Cameron has acceded to his opponents’ demands that libel courts should be able to impose exemplary damages against publications that shun this pseudo-self-regulatory circus. This would represent the licensing of the press by the backdoor, the use of extreme financial pressure to strongarm every outlet into submitting itself to the watchful eye of regulators.

Cameron is proposing to stifle the press, not liberate it. My online magazine Spiked has already said it will never sign up to a “self-regulatory” body; so has the Spectator. Others should follow suit and make Cameron’s censoriousness unworkable.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online.