Leveson must not purge the press of its messy freedom

 
Mick Hume
LORD Justice Leveson’s report into media “culture and ethics” will not turn Britain into Zimbabwe-on-Sea. But it will risk leaving our press even less free and open than it is already.

Today, Leveson is widely expected to propose a new press regulator backed by law. Statute-backed regulation is certainly what celebrities and anti-tabloid crusaders are demanding. But what would it mean?

Those who want new legal measures to curb the press use inoffensive expressions like “statutory underpinning”, or “statutory recognition”. But these are weasel words. You can call it whatever you like, it still means more state intervention in a supposedly free press. And that should have no place in a civilised society.

A statute compelling newspapers to sign up to a new regulator would look like a modern version of state licensing. That system dictated that nothing could be published without the permission of the Crown. People went to the Tower and the gallows to fight for a free press until licensing was ended in 1694.

Similarly, a rule that imposed financial penalties on publications that don’t submit to the new system would look like an indirect tax on dissident publications. Ironically it is exactly 300 years since the British state first imposed taxes on the unlicensed press in 1712 – a “tax on knowledge” to try to stop the masses reading what their rulers were up to. And what happens to a newspaper that refuses to pay penalties under the new statutory-backed system? Are the authorities going to close it down?

That said, there is no need for scaremongering. The danger is not crude censorship or the “Orwellian nightmare” of government-controlled British newspapers.

The threat is more insidious: that the shadow of state intervention leaves us with a more conformist, tamer and sanitised press. The mission of the Leveson Inquiry has been to purge the press of everything that is perceived as tasteless. A conformist culture of “you can’t say THAT” is the biggest threat to press freedom after Leveson, whatever new system of regulation is finally agreed.

Too many in this debate have accepted the myth that the UK press has been too free to run wild. The truth is that the press is neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator is appointed to wash its mouth out.

We should defend the right of a free press to be an unruly mess. That some abuse press freedom, as in the phone-hacking scandal, is no excuse for others to encroach upon it. Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving. It is an indivisible liberty – for all or none at all.

Why do we need special regulation of a free press anyway? In the US, the First Amendment makes it illegal to pass any law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”. Those few words – inspired by the Puritan revolutionaries of England – say more about the meaning of press freedom than Lord Justice Leveson’s voluminous report will today.

Mick Hume is author of There Is No Such Thing as a Free Press.