His depiction of press freedom as the greatest thing a man could be granted, standing “above all liberties”, was not poetic melodrama. Rather, Milton instinctively recognised that press freedom is a first-order freedom, the freedom upon which all other freedoms are built. Without the freedom “to know, to utter”, to publish what we believe to be true and to distribute it as we see fit, freedom itself collapses.
Liberty is not possible without the freedom of the press. Think about the fundamental rights that would be compromised if freedom of the press died. The freedom of association; the right to political organisation; the right to protest; the right to vote; all are dependent upon man having the right to think, speak, write and publish freely, and to articulate and disseminate his political and moral (and sometimes immoral) convictions without restriction.
That’s why the First Amendment to the US Constitution says the state shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or the press. Because none of the other rights outlined in subsequent amendments would have meant anything without the guarantee of that core freedom of a citizen to say or write what he or she believes to be true. This is the freedom that makes us fully human, which allows us to be political and moral creatures and to engage with the world, with knowledge, and with each other.
Today, in Britain, where numerous liberty-lovers fought tooth and catapult for the ideal of press freedom, we should likewise insist that the state make no law muzzling the press.
The current assault on press freedom might be led by a mild-mannered judge (Lord Leveson), and be supported by floppy-haired celebs and liberal journalists. But the end result of any statutory regulation proposed by Leveson would be the same as every other top-down assault on press freedom in history: it would grant the authorities the right to control the traffic in ideas and belief, denting our liberty to know, to utter, and weakening the foundation upon which liberty itself is built.
But at the same time, as we rail against any statutory regulation that might be proposed by Leveson, we should also guard against excessive regulation per se, including the internal, industry-based variety preferred by some of Leveson’s critics in the media.
The danger is that the Leveson process has unleashed a regulatory logic, with some journalists now accepting that the press has been too free and naughty and must therefore self-flagellate in atonement for past sins. In truth, the press isn’t free enough. We need more of the liberty to know, to utter, not less. Let’s not create a situation where there’s no need for the state to castrate the press, because it has shown itself willing to castrate itself.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked online.