IN THE past, Britain was frequently ripped apart by the question: “Should the press be free or regulated?” Writers squared up to censorious Kings and demanded, in the words of seventeenth century poet John Milton, “the liberty to utter”. In return, Kings threw disobedient hacks in the Tower. In 1792, Thomas Paine was sentenced to death in absentia for writing the revolutionary Rights of Man, leading him to insist on the right of ordinary folk to read or hear any idea on earth.
But what’s the burning question being fought over today? It isn’t whether the press should be free or unfree, but: “what’s the best way to shackle those pesky papers?”
There’s now a choking consensus that the press must be regulated by its mysterious betters, and the only debate is over how this might be achieved. The publication of the Tories’ royal charter on press regulation yesterday was a sad day for press freedom. It confirmed that, even in this land of Milton and Paine, there’s now hardly anyone making the case for the unfettered liberty to publish and be damned.
Instead, we have the Tories on one side, insisting that Lord Leveson’s proposals for tighter regulation of the press be implemented through royal charter, and the censorious celebs of Hacked Off on the other, demanding they be implemented through statute.
When Leveson first published his proposals last year, David Cameron posed as a lover of liberty who would refuse to pass the proposed law to set up a regulator of the press. Now he has achieved the remarkable feat of doing something worse: seeking to set up a toothy independent regulator of the press through the royal prerogative, nodded through by the archaic, unaccountable Privy Council.
Using royal authority to create a watcher of the press reverses all the hard work of Milton & Co., who fought precisely to weaken monarchical power over public debate, over that battle between “Truth and Falsehood”.
The tabloid-haters of Hacked Off accuse Cameron of acting undemocratically. True, but that’s rich coming from a group that is all about harnessing the power of modern-day royalty – celebrities – in its snobbish war on raucous redtops. And in cynically pushing forward victims of press intrusion, Hacked Off is circumventing rational debate, and using emotional blackmail to force the public and politicians to accept its agenda. Hacked Off’s use of a kind of “victims’ prerogative” isn’t much better than Cameron’s royal prerogative.
Both sides in this clash agree the press is too unregulated. But that isn’t true. Through chilling libel laws, human rights legislation that guards “privacy rights”, and laws limiting how journalists may spy on people in power, the press is subjected to too much regulation, not too little.
We should reject both sides’ proposed methods for beefing up regulation of the press, and instead look to America. That country’s constitution, inspired by great Britons like Milton and Paine, forbids officialdom from making any law whatsoever that abridges press freedom.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online.