Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Now is the time to start pressing for freedom of Press

No: you didn't dream the Leveson Inquiry. The politicking over its implementation poses a greater threat to Press freedom than ever, says Mick Hume

So little has been heard about Lord Justice Leveson of late that some might be wondering if they imagined the Leveson Inquiry into the "culture and ethics" of the UK Press and the brouhaha when he published his report last November.

But, behind closed doors, the authorities are secretly thrashing out the new post-Leveson system of Press regulation. And all of the options now on the political bargaining table spell real danger for Press freedom.

Leveson's supporters in all parties and the lobby group Hacked Off still want to see the new regulator backed by law – the one Leveson proposal rejected by David Cameron as a step too far towards state regulation.

Some in the House of Lords were so outraged by Cameron defying the good Lord Justice that they have attached an amendment to the Defamation Bill in a bid to sneak through a Leveson Law via the back door.

That act of genteel authoritarianism in the Lords is a sign of the contempt for Press freedom among the pro-statutory regulation elites. Yet the Tory leadership's alternative – to have the new regulator recognised by Royal Charter, rather than by statute – is no better, and arguably even worse.

Instead of going through parliament, the Tories would set up a regulatory system, using the Royal Prerogative. This is the constitutional device which gives Her Majesty's Government, acting in the name of the Crown, the power to sign treaties and launch wars without consulting parliament – never mind the public.

A Royal Charter has to be agreed and overseen via the Privy Council, the ancient, secretive body, largely made up of senior politicians, which formally 'advises' the sovereign on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.

In practice, this means such decisions are made by Government ministers. As the Privy Council Office's own website makes clear, setting a body up by Royal Charter "effectively means a significant degree of Government regulation of the affairs of the body."

So much for no political interference in the Press.

There are signs that the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders might be coming round to Cameron's Royal Charter, if it's the nearest they can get to statutory regulation.

Yet anybody with a passing knowledge of the history of the struggle for Press freedom should recoil from any notion of the Crown and the Privy Council becoming involved.

It evokes grim shadows of the old system of Crown licensing of the Press, started by Henry VIII in 1529 and expanded by successive monarchs, under which nothing could be published without official permission. The central body of censors enforcing that system was the Star Chamber, a secret court made up of judges and Privy Councillors.

Those who dared to defy these crude early attempts to 'regulate' the Press faced a trip to the Tower, or the gallows.

Crown licensing and censorship of everything that was published did not end until 1694.

Now it seems that our rulers want to give the Crown and the Privy Council a role in a system of regulating the Press once more.

There might be no return to hanging, drawing and quartering unruly writers.

But it is still a dangerous form of state intervention in the Press that people have struggled against for more than 500 years.

Whether a new 'independent' regulator is supervised by the broadcasting quango Ofcom (as Leveson wants), or by senior judges (as Labour has suggested), or by Privy Council, it is state intervention by any other name and bad news for Press freedom.

More important than any differences between the major British parties is that they all accept the central myth that has informed the debate since the phone-hacking scandal: the myth that the British Press has been too free to run wild and that the naughty newspapers need the firm hand of a new regulator to smack them into line. Indeed, the Tories want to go further and regulate news and opinion websites, like the one I write for, Spiked.

The pro-liberty argument that, in fact, the Press is already neither free, nor open enough, has not featured in their deliberations.

Thus, everybody in politics now embraces the 'Leveson principles'. Yet those 'principles' are infused with the elitist, Press-bashing spirit of the entire inquiry.

One example: the Lord Justice proposed 'incentives' to encourage publications to sign up to the new system on a voluntary basis, in particular the 'carrot' of a low-cost arbitration system, that would save the huge expense of court hearings.

The flipside of this incentive, however, is the threat of the courts imposing 'exemplary' damages against those which refuse to bend the knee to the new regulator.

If that is a carrot, it is one shaped like a baseball bat with a nail banged through the end. Yet both the 'rebel' peers and the Tories have embraced this idea of indirect licensing-taxation of the Press. What is missing in all this is any forthright defence, not of the 'Leveson principles', but of the principles of freedom of expression and a free Press.

That fact that those liberties might be abused by some – as in the News of the World (NoW) phone-hacking scandal, or Newsnight's false allegation that a top Tory was a paedophile – should not be turned into an excuse for the authorities to encroach on the freedoms that belong to all, or none at all. It's time to break the silence and start a public fight for the future of Press freedom.

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