My Favourite Puritan Laments

It changes constantly. Every time I sit down to write about the biggest story in the UK today something new occurs. Rebekah Brooks is arrested, Ed Milliband fulminates; Sir Paul Stephenson resigns, Keith Vaz tries to look statesmanlike but smirks anyway; John Yates resigns, MPs queue up to be interviewed; David Cameron scuttles back from Africa, the entire chattering class rejoices.

Meanwhile the BBC and its house organ the Guardian rub their hands in glee and give us wall to wall coverage of the severe wounding of their idological opponent. Politicians who ony a few weeks ago thought themselves privileged to genuflect in the presence of Rupert Murdoch are suddenly valiant defenders of truth and all that is decent. That they are also relishing the opportunity to put the boot in to a press which had savaged them over their corruption is, I am sure, co-incidental.

What could be the most serious consequence of this stushie is rarely mentioned. It is not the dismantling of News Corporation, it is not the weakening of the Metropolitan Police, it is not the  threat to an increasing isolated Prime Minister. If you peer beyond the headline fulminations there appears a growing acceptance of one of the greatest threats to a free and healthy society, a state licensed press.

John Milton “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

Hugh Grant, super snob, requester of super-injunctions and sometime actor, was perhaps first when he ruminated on Question Time “I’m not for regulating the proper press, the broadsheet press. But it is insane that the tabloid press is left unregulated.” Yasmin Alihbai Brown, Independent columnist, thinks press licensing by government is “a good idea.” Even Alan Rushbridger, editor of the Guardian whilst admitting the prospect made him feel “anxious” was ”interested to hear other views.”

A newspaper editor even willing to consider press licensing by the state is a greater danger to the nation than all Rupert Murdoch’s influence. We can’t expect sense from actors, but when a leading progressive columnist and the editor of the Britain’s standard bearing progressive newspaper both argue for or are open to a state controlled press we are in trouble.

Who exposed the activities of News International? Not the Metropolitan Police who junked the investigation years ago because there was no evidence whilst sitting on bin bags full of unread emails. Not the politicians who were eager to pay court to the powerful who might point a few votes their way. The wrongdoing was brought to light by a free press who were willing to expose corruption in police and Parliament. You may think the press should be tamed but there are enough laws on the statute book already, and we can see them operating today as powerful figures in the media are arrested.

Our favourite puritan John Milton got it right when, in the midst of the English Civil War he took on state control of the press. In the Areopagitica he argued against the Licensing Order of 1643 which required all newspapers to be licensed by the state. In doing so he risked a great deal more than an interview with the Met.

Prohibiting a publication merely because it is unlicensed, because it does not fit in with prevailing morality, “kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.” Milton argued for the power of truth.“Let Truth and Falsehood grapple; who
ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” Milton prevailed and the licensing of the press was eventually abolished.

Blind John was able to see what Hugh, Yasmin, Alan and all the politicians resentful of having their own misdeeds exposed cannot see, the importance of freedom of expression. Milton saw how fundamental this is, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.

I never purchased a copy of the News of the World but I regret it’s passing. Perhaps the greatest offence of Rupert Murdoch is that he brought about the destruction of a newspaper prepared to muckrake and expose the offences, trivial as well as serious, of the powerful. I believe John Milton would have lamented the passing of the News of the Screws as well.

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About Campbell

Now retired but once upon a time a parish minister in Glasgow, before that the South West and initially the Black Isle. Been a prison chaplain and lecturer. Still am constantly bemused by the weird world around me.
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4 Responses to My Favourite Puritan Laments

  1. sanstorm says:

    Yes – I have thought about this too – I think a free press is really important – otherwise it is going to go a bit Orwellian.
    As for the story changing all the time, no one saw the custard pie coming!

    • Campbell says:

      Custard Pie Man certainly didn’t see Mrs Murdoch coming. The one clear message to emerge from the hearings is, “Don’t mess with Wendi.”

  2. Ewan Wilson says:

    I am again in substantial agreement with you over this. The spectacle of frenzied point scoring from the Guardian/BBC lynch mob is most unappetising. Millpede expatiating on how history warns us of the grave dangers of power being concentrated must rank as the height of hypocritical self contradiction, coming from a family of Marxist loving statists!! Get thee to a gulag, young Ed, which is where you seem to think your erstwhile buddies the Murdochs should end up!

  3. Ewan Wilson says:

    Incidentally, the News of the World helped desecrate the Sabbath so for all its exposures of serious issues, wallowing amongst the sheer muck, one feels its demise is providential and condign. At least the Sunday Post is a remarkably gentle paper by contrast! ( I read it on Mondays!)

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