Putting politicians in charge of the press would be a disaster

Allister Heath
WHO would have thought that in 2012, at a time when a technological revolution has allowed anybody to become a publisher, that politicians would seriously be mulling a return to the licensing of newspapers. The practice, last adopted during the English Civil War in 1643 and thankfully abolished in 1695, would be an affront to free speech and permanently subordinate the media to the state bureaucracy.

Anybody with any sense wants to reform the media. The question is how. Many MPs want the state to regulate newspapers by statute, setting up an “independent” quango for the purpose. Under this system, and regardless of what proponents may claim, nobody could launch a publication or continue to publish without being given the go-ahead by this new body. This would be a terrible mistake.

This newspaper always respects the law. We do our best to be as accurate as possible and put stories to all concerned – and when, sadly, we do get it wrong, we correct our errors as speedily as possible. Yet we too would be affected by any statutory regulation of the press. The same would be true of other innocent publications and journalists: they would all pay for the sins of others.

The reality is that a small minority of journalists disgraced themselves and their profession; but the laws and powers to prosecute such abuse has long been on the statute books. As so often the case in this country, including in the City, a lack of enforcement of existing rules has long been a major problem.

It is vital to keep the press free from government control. Regulatees never really dare to criticise their regulators in the same way as independent outsiders can. City A.M. is a genuinely free newspaper – we are available at no charge to our readers, we are often handed out in the street, we are free thinkers and we are an independent media company. We say things as we see them, stand up for our readers, attack monopolies, criticise those whom we think are in the wrong and praise those who have done good.

The Liberal Democrats have a great tradition of defending free speech; a hallmark of liberalism is a free press. John Stuart Mill must be turning in his grave at the news that many Lib Dem MPs support government control. The Labour party has also long defended freedom of expression; its MPs must follow the lead of Frank Field, Betty Boothroyd and others and fight for freedom.

As for the Tories, those MPs who believe in the statutory regulation of the press will end up undermining the small platoons and the civil society they have long supported, and diminishing the media’s diversity and pluralism, a development which will eventually hurt them. They should recall the views of Winston Churchill: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”

Many newspapers made terrible mistakes. But the answer is to punish the guilty and make sure that procedures are put into place to prevent abuses, improve journalistic practices and – crucially – make it easier for wronged parties to find justice. The statutory, statist alternative would undermine one of civilisation’s key freedoms, punish innocent publications and give politicians the ultimate right to decide who can and cannot publish. David Cameron is right to want newspaper companies to clean up their act – but he must reject the statutory regulation of the press.