Why David Cameron was right to stand up for free speech

Allister Heath
YESTERDAY wasn’t quite the tragic day for the freedom of the press that it could have been, for one reason only: at one minute to midnight, David Cameron came riding to the rescue of free speech. By refusing to back the Leveson report’s key demand – a new regulator underpinned by statute and ultimately policed by Ofcom – the Prime Minister showed that he will fight to save the key British tradition of the separation of press and state.

It was an unusually principled and even brilliant performance from Cameron. It was also a major political risk: much of the public supports state regulation – of newspapers and of most other things – and his coalition partners, Nick Clegg’s misnamed Liberal Democrats, also want to put the politicians in charge.

The Prime Minister wants the newspaper industry to change and urgently tackle its problems and culture – which it certainly must. But he wants the industry to make the changes itself, which is the way it should be in a free society – and the way it would be in any country with a proper constitutional protection for free speech, such as America, where a scheme such as Lord Justice Leveson’s would instantly be thrown out.

City A.M. fights every single day to maintain the trust of its readers. That means striving to behave ethically, providing information in our stories and features that is as accurate as possible, and telling it as we see it. We are grateful that we operate in a country where natural justice prevails and we are allowed to voice our opinions freely. We are deeply disgusted by the phone-hacking scandal – and of course any journalist who breaks the law or bribes the police should be prosecuted.

But the fact that there is a minority of bad eggs in some areas of journalism doesn’t mean that the whole industry, including small, independent and entirely innocent papers such as City A.M., should be neutered by being brought under the ultimate control of politicians. This would merely replace one problem – which could better be dealt with via the existing criminal law and new procedures in newspapers – with another, even bigger one. Statutory regulation would lead to far worse things. As the Prime Minister put it yesterday: “The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians, whether today or some time in the future, to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.”

Lord Justice Leveson’s report is flawed in other ways. Shockingly, it devotes just one of its almost 2,000 pages to the internet, which it describes as an “ethical vacuum”. But one of the saddest developments is that the political left’s leadership has officially given up on freedom. Ed Miliband’s endorsement in its entirety of a report that he and his advisers cannot possibly have read and digested fully was a travesty. Clegg’s Liberal Party forefathers must be spinning in their graves. Fortunately, some heroic left-wing MPs disagree; let us hope that they can convince more of their friends and colleagues. There was a time when left-wingers were the most steadfast and honourable defenders of free speech and civil liberties; in the US, many of the most passionate defenders of freedom of expression are left-wing Democrats. The contrast with Britain is stark.

It is now vital that the newspaper industry puts its house in order and introduces better mechanisms to crack down on wrongdoing. It must become easier for legitimate grievances to be dealt with. Cameron has given the industry a breathing space but it remains in a last chance saloon. It must act, and fast.