Features

All together now

Spectator editors and writers past and present unite against statutory press regulation

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

Fraser Nelson

British politicians have long dreamt of regulating the press, but have always been hampered by the basic point that the press isn’t theirs to regulate. Only now, with the industry on its knees, do the enemies of press freedom feel able to strike. Their hope is to appoint a press watchdog who would stand well back at first, but be able to tighten the screws if need be. The less scrupulous MPs believe that from that moment on, power will shift. They will be able to speak softly to journalists, while carrying a very big stick.

I had a taste of this last month when a senior MP telephoned me asking me to discipline a Spectator writer who had displeased him on Twitter. It was a preposterous suggestion, but he was limbering up for a post-Leveson era in which the press will have to take note of what people like him think. Soon, such MPs may have control of a regulatory device that can be ratcheted up, inflicting further pain on newspapers already fighting for survival.

David Cameron set up the Leveson inquiry in a panic. Having run up a £5.6 million bill, he will face understandable pressure to act. Word is that he desperately doesn’t want to choose between Leveson and a free press, and is looking for a third way. But this time, none exists.

Fraser Nelson is editor of The Spectator

 

Nigel Lawson

Press freedom is of the first importance, so I oppose statutory regulation of the press. It can all too easily inhibit the press in its essential task of scrutinising and challenging authority in all its forms. But the matter does not rest there. The public needs to be protected from abuse of press freedom in two ways. The first is the law of libel, which we have, although whether it is precisely right as it stands is another matter. The second is privacy legislation, which we do not have, and badly need.

Nigel Lawson was Chancellor of the Exchequer 1983-1989 and editor of The Spectator 1966-1970

 

Boris Johnson

Government in this country is as clean of financial corruption as anywhere in the world.  That is largely thanks to a free and inquisitive media. To rinse the gutters of public life you need a gutter press.

Boris Johnson is Mayor of London and was editor of The Spectator 1999-2005

 

Dominic Lawson

If Lord Justice Leveson were to recommend some form of licensing of journalists, it should only be necessary to invoke the words of John Wilkes, from his peroration two-and-a-half centuries ago printed in The North Briton: ‘The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country.’ As Leveson’s colleague Lord Chief Justice Judge observed a year ago, the significance of that phrase was not that it upheld the liberty of the press, but that ‘the liberty of the press is the birthright of every citizen, that is, the community as the whole’. So while it may be self-serving of our trade to oppose regulation and invigilation by a government-appointed regulator, we are defending something infinitely more important than our own commercial interests. It is not as if we act beyond legal constraint. We have the toughest libel laws in the developed world, available not just to the wealthy but, since the development of contingency fees, to anyone with a good case. The courts themselves may not be held in contempt — and newspapers in breach of that requirement have rightly faced heavy fines. There is also a fast-developing law of privacy, emanating from the Human Rights Act.

Most pertinently, in the case of phone hacking — which precipitated the Leveson inquiry — a number of journalists now face the prospect, if found guilty, of imprisonment, under the law as it stands. Given that it was newspapers that uncovered those misdeeds, it would be a bitter irony if statutory regulation were to be the monument to their efforts.

Dominic Lawson was editor of The Spectator 1990-1995 and Sunday Telegraph editor 1995-2005

 

Peter Jones

[Alt-Text]


When the Roman historian Tacitus mused on life under the tyrannical emperor Domitian, he produced a reflection of which Orwell would have been proud (Agricola, 2). Having described how Domitian set out to burn books and banish free thought, he concluded: ‘Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, but we the depths of slavery, robbed even of the exchange of ideas because of informers. We would have lost memory itself as well as our tongues, had it been as easy to forget as it was to remain silent.’’Ere! That Tacitus. Not bad.

Peter Jones writes The Spectator’s Ancient and ‘Modern’ column

 

James Forsyth

Too often in Britain we think that the answer to any problem is more law and regulation. But nearly every issue that Lord Justice Leveson and his inquiry have been examining is already covered by the law: phone hacking is illegal, there are strict rules regarding prejudging someone’s guilt before trial and printing false attacks on people’s character and reputation is libellous. What is needed is not a new law setting up a new regulator but better application of the existing law. We should also be wary of anything that offers politicians power over the press. ‘Statutory underpinning’ would be the thin end of the wedge.

The Leveson inquiry was set up because David Cameron needed to demonstrate that he was taking the whole issue of phone hacking seriously despite his links to several of those caught up in the scandal. It might have been — as many in No. 10 and the Cabinet declare privately — a mistake to set up the inquiry in the first place. But it would be a far greater error for him to accept uncritically its recommendations.

James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator

 

Matthew Parris

My greatest worry is about pre-notification: clearance in advance. Once (or if) there exists a body with semi-statutory authority to determine what reports, and what means and lines of inquiry, are ‘in the public interest’, pressure will grow on editors to consult the body before publication. Where journalists are contemplating subterfuge in order to stand up a story, the pressure will be to consult before even chasing the story. Otherwise, should complaints be made after publication, it will seem only reasonable to point out to the editor that a body capable of defining the public interest exists, and to ask why he didn’t take the precaution of consulting it in advance. The editor who consulted his own judgment alone and failed to get clearance will appear careless, or worse. Failure to get clearance will aggravate the offence, if offence is found. Thus we will be led by a series of small logical steps, each of which seems only reasonable, to a situation in which a reputable editor must get clearance from an official body before pursuing any story that he ought to have known might give rise to a complaint.

Matthew Parris is a Spectator columnist and formerly MP for West Derbyshire 1979-1986

 

James Delingpole

Leveson was just a kangaroo court set up by the BBC and the Guardian on behalf of the left-liberal establishment in order to attack free speech, free markets and, most especially, Rupert Murdoch. Its conclusions will certainly be wrong-headed, dangerous and counterproductive. What we need is more press freedom, not less. Our libel laws are the reason people like Jimmy Savile, corrupt politicians and crooked businessmen get away with it. The PCC — in my experience — is merely a tool used by authoritarian, mendacious bullies with something to hide to harass honest journalists trying to do their job. Any new regulation which doesn’t embrace the internet will be worthless. (How does it help to gag the tabloids if you can read it all online?) And any new regulation which does embrace the internet will be terrifying, evil, wrong — and conducive to totalitarianism.

James Delingpole is a Spectator columnist and TV critic

 

Dot Wordsworth

I do not like to side with that horrible man John Milton, but he was right when he said: ‘If we think to regulat Printing, thereby to rectifie manners, we must regulat all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.’ He meant this as a reductio ad
absurdum
, but I fear that bossy politicians, complacently regarding their success in controlling cigarettes and whisky and what names we call each other in the street, will eagerly take up the apodosis of Milton’s conditional proposal too.

Dot Wordsworth writes The Spectator’s ‘Mind your language’ column

 

Alexander Chancellor

The very idea of statutory press regulation is antithetical to the idea of press freedom. Imagine it ever being proposed in the United States! Yet there is a strong wind behind it in this country, whipped up almost entirely by celebrities eager to keep their names out of the newspapers except on their own terms. You won’t find many ordinary people baying for it.

Journalists should, like everybody else, be subjected to the laws of the land, and they are. The law that forbids phone hacking has been invoked with dramatic consequences against Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. The article of the European Convention of Human Rights which says that ‘everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’ was incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act of 1998. And Britain’s libel laws are so notoriously restrictive that they are now being reformed to make them weaker.

Far from needing more regulation, the press is already more than adequately tamed. The libel laws, successfully used by such miscreants as Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer and Lance Armstrong to protect themselves from exposure, may well have played a part in Fleet Street’s shameful failure ever to reveal the truth about Jimmy Savile. If its enemies had their way, the press might well not even have had the gumption to expose the phone-hacking scandal, as the Guardian did, or, as the Daily Telegraph did, the MPs’ expenses scandal.

Not only is a statutory regulator inherently undesirable, it is hard to imagine how it could operate in the diverse and rumbustious world of the print media. And the press is already cringing; the last thing it needs is to be further cowed.

Alexander Chancellor was editor of The Spectator 1975-1984

 

Taki

Now that I’m in love with Lindsay Lohan, I should be in favour of regulation of the press in view of what the tabloids have done to the future Mrs Taki. Nevertheless I am against it. With regulation the crooks would run wild in most European parliaments, including Britain, not to mention Greece, Romania and Bulgaria. Jimmy Savile types ditto. So my fiancée gets a raw deal, but the majority benefits. One more sacrifice by the poor little Greek boy for the common good.

Taki writes The Spectator’s ‘High life’ column

 

Rory Sutherland

Which used car would you prefer to buy? One sold by a man who has lived in your street for 15 years and who drinks in your local pub? Or an apparently identical car sold by a man called ‘Dave’ living a hundred miles away? I’d buy the first. The former seller has rather more reputation at stake. He is hence a little less likely to pack the gearbox with sawdust, conscious that he may have to face you in the pub, and that word of his deception can reach the ears of everyone he knows.

This area of economics, which might be called ‘reputational game theory’, deserves more study. Another name for it might be ‘Gygeology’, after Gyges, the original Teflon Man, mentioned in Plato’s Republic. As a young shepherd, Gyges found a magic ring which made its wearer invisible. Suddenly immune from reputational damage, the shameless Gyges uses the ring to seduce a queen, murder a king and commit various crimes, later becoming King of Lydia and UK Prime Minister, 1997-2007.

As Plato, TripAdvisor and eBay all show, there can be little trust without the threat of shame. A free press is essential to business and democracy. I do not want to be governed by Gyges

Rory Sutherland writes The Spectator’s ‘Wiki Man’ column

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Show comments
  • Swiss Bob

    This is all very laudable but unfortunately the public doesn’t much care, it didn’t care about the phone hacking except for the untrue allegations concerning Milly Dowler and it won’t much care if you are regulated to a greater or lesser extent.

    And the reason is that those who read the Sun will still get their boobs and footy, the left will use it to wage lawfare on the ‘right wing’ press and given that those of us on the right don’t have a newspaper worthy of the label ‘right wing’ to defend.you’re not going to get much support there and I include The Spectator.

    Added to all of this is you venal reporting, all we get is a diet of Gvnt, corporate, NGO etc press releases or vacuous oft repeated opinion, journalism seems to have completely disappeared.

    Three examples which prove my point:

    Neather

    Benghazi

    Savile

  • Sarah

    “British politicians have long dreamt of regulating the press, but have always been hampered by the basic point that the press isn’t theirs to regulate.”

    I feel journalists are misunderstanding the regulation proposition. It’s not politicians who will regulate the press, it’s the public.

    It’s ironical that the Spectator has chosen an image of woman gagged and bound to support their case. When it is the lack of regulation in our voracious, intrusive, agenda-setting, domineering, bullying, insidiously sexist, unacccountable media that gags and binds women in this society.

  • Sarah

    Far from being a defender of democracy, non-corruption and the public interest the British press undermines those efforts.

    It scares good people (mainly women) off of running for public office, drives our elected representatives out of their jobs, influences voting, corrupts our officials, sets the political agenda, undermines public faith in our institutions for self-serving reasons with catastrophic, sometimes fatal consequences.

    The alternative is not state sanctioned-information, it’s public accountability.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    You don’t use the freedom you have now. Not here, at least. The Spectator is the poodle of..someone. It is shallow, it is regularly far less incisive than the amateurs who comment here. It fails to address important issues. It goes along with the flow, accepts the ‘polical agenda’ set by others.

    Get a grip, or you don’t deserve your freedom.

    • Swiss Bob

      Ms Klapp, reading this blog (mrishmael.blogspot.com/) may provide some relief. He has an infuriating way of making any opinion on any subject I may have seem either simplistic, poorly thought through or just plain wrong.

      He also loathes journalists.

  • passer-by

    See how you all wriggle and squirm.

    For too long you have been sh*tting on your own doorsteps by using threats and innuendo, illegal and immoral methodology, and spite, malice, misanthropy and misogyny, and refusing to clear up the mess when called on it. You reek of the kind of elitism for which you mock the current government, and seek to patronise the public with your “we know best” attitude.

    It’s sad really, because actually you aren’t all pathetic, but you’ve certainly given that impression since your self-interest and self-importance were exposed to the kind of scrutiny previously reserved only for your prey.

  • Sarah

    “You won’t find many ordinary people baying for it.”

    Rather revealing comment about the nature of media men’s social and professional circles.

    What do you know of the ordinary person? How is the ordinary person to bay for anything in this media controlled world?

    The only contact the press has with ordinary people and their opinions is through the prism of exploiting them for profit.

  • mikewaller

    I think the comments so far made are what our press so richly deserve. In addition to the ceaseless flow of what my old Headmaster used to call “muck for the masses, I am sick, sick, sick to death of what I call the “Humphrys Tendency”, journalists using their profound knowledge of the various interests politicians have to keep in play, to set the politicians up as prevaricators and liars. By all means hound crooks out of public life, but given the parlous state we are in we desperately need to up our game in terms of political debate. The kind of stupid knockabout stuff cooked up by a malign blend of our media and party politics is well past its sell by date, For example, what Cameron did or did not e-mail to Rebekah (Sp.?) Wade is neither here not there unless it contained something like “What does Rupert want me to do next?” Yet as I understand it from the radio this morning, some wholly innocuous exchanges were headline news in the Mail today. The reasons are obvious: the hint of a sexual frisson for its more prurient readers plus a massive shot across his bows in case he does some of the things Leveson is likely to suggest. All in all it’s pathetic.
    What all the Spectator contributors ought to do instead of just spewing motherhood and apple-pie statements about the freedom of the press, is fully to answer the points that Hugh Grant so courageously makes in his piece in one of two ways. Either: “Sorry, the consequences for “little folk” whom fate throws into the maws of our brutal press is an entirely acceptable price to pay for the freedom of the press”; or,

    “This is absolutely disgusting, and should be stopped by doing X”.

    Unsupported by the courage to squarely face up to Grant’s points, what has been said so far is just so much self-serving claptrap!

  • mikewaller

    And another thing! Would whoever wrote “Land of the right” at the front of this week’s edition (our esteemed editor?) please turn to pages 54-5 where they will find an excellent review of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography and then on to pages 72-3 to read another first class review. The second concerns several TV documentaries and is entitled “The American Way”. If having (re-)read these pieces the author of “Land of the right” still wants to retain the post of chief UK cheerleader for mass right-wing opinion in the US, who am I to stand in the the way? However, for myself, the “lesser of two evils” choice for a companion on a desert island would unquestionably be a Guardian reader!

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.maloney.39904 John Maloney

    The Leveson Committee is made up of biased individuals who represent the interests of the power elite, and not those of the public. They are more concerned with protecting the establishment from scrutiny than ensuring a healthy investigative press. Press suppression is a western government agenda. This is merely a taste of what would be in store from an EU Federation.

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