Parliament is supposedly the guardian of our liberties, not the protector of their own interests. A free press is fundamental to the liberty of a free people, whatever happens in the Commons on Monday we will end up with a press which is less free than it is today. Although Parliament will be discussing press regulation what they are actually deciding affects the freedom of all of us.
It is indisputable that some journalists have the ethical standards of pond scum. My first real encounter with values-free journalism was the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster when I visited a parishioner whose husband was missing.
Sitting with the widow of a few hours we were interrupted by journalists at the door. Finally having had enough I answered the door and in exasperation told the two tabloid journalists to go and bother someone else, admittedly I could have been more polite. Shortly after there was another interruption, a neighbour saying the journalists had been at her door saying the minister said they should interview her. No-one should have any delusions about press standards.
Some journalists have been worse. Some have committed criminal acts. Using the criminal activities of some tabloids as justification the Tories will try to set up a Royal Charter regulating the press, the Lib Dems and Labour will go further and try to impose a statute based Royal Charter regulation on the entire newspaper industry.
Ed Milliband in his opposition the Tory position that a Royal Charter will be sufficient does so on the grounds that it was not fair “on the victims”. It is a hopeless dream but it would be nice if politicians were not so cynical. Victims, whether those with whom we all have sympathy such as the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeline McCann, or those with whom it is difficult to have any sympathy such as the degenerates Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, should not be turned into legislators.
The pressure group Hacked Off are adept at promoting their views. Their front man Hugh Grant may ‘phone members of the shadow cabinet, his voice should be no louder than that of any other member of the public.
Law is impersonal, it has to be, otherwise it is neither ethical or workable. Sensibly we do not allow other victims to decide legislation. Rape victims, mugging victims, burglary victims, none of these are allowed to veto legislation because we know that an emotional reaction to an attack, whilst understandable, is not conducive to clear or even rational thinking. When we legislate to appease pressure groups and errant celebrities we lose sight of what is in the best interests of the entire country.
Politicians would love to see a more amenable press, one which docilely behaved and did not push its nose into those things which politicians wish to keep hidden. Most of the Labour MP’s and Lib Dems and quite a few Tories will support Ed Milliband. Since the expenses scandal MP’s of all stripes have been keen on putting the press in its place, subservient to politicians.
One of the last things we need in the UK is a docile acquiescent press. The legislation proposed by Cameron as well as Milliband and Clegg will have an effect on all newspapers, particularly smaller local papers. Local government in the UK is already inefficient and nepotistic, bad as it is it would be even worse if a local press was hindered in reporting on councillors bumbling.
Tories wish a Royal Charter, Labour and the Lib Dems are expected to table their own amendment for a Royal Charter, but with statutory backing. Whichever is chosen will begin a slide towards full-blown statutory control of the press. It is in everyone’s interest that the press be free. If we wish to hold our politicians to account a free press is vital, even one which occasionally acts with the morality of pond scum.
What has been lost in the discussion over the Leveson enquiry is that as well as a failure of the press it was a gross failure of the police. It is only after the ‘phone hacking was revealed by the press that the police started investigating the criminal activities of a few journalists. Without a free press would we have had police corruption and bribe taking exposed?
Without a free press we would not have had the scandal of Mid-Staffs bureaucrats revealed, a scandal which has probably caused the deaths of hundreds without hospital executives being subject to the dawn raids by police which reporters have experienced. Without a free press we would not have heard of the gagging orders imposed by the NHS on whistle blowers.
Puritans are out of fashion today, nevertheless we could do worse than return to Milton. Blind John could see much further than our politicians. Against both King and then Parliament he argued in Areopagitica against state regulation of the press. Such regulation is an assault on the liberty of the people. Licensing the press will hinder the discovery of truth the government wishes to keep hidden, because there will always be more truth to be found that we do not yet know of.
OK so he didn’t think Catholics should have freedom to publish, but the basic principle is right, if we have a situation when newspapers can only publish under statutory approval then it is not only the press which has lost its freedom.