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Status anxiety

You either have a free press – or you don’t

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

1 December 2012

9:00 AM

By the time you’re reading this, David Cameron will probably have made up his mind about how to respond to the Leveson report. For members of my trade, it will be the defining moment of his premiership.

I’m not all that optimistic. I bumped into a Conservative whip last week who said he thought it would be difficult for the PM to ignore Leveson if he recommends statutory regulation, however much he’d like to. He trotted out the familiar line that Cameron will be under enormous political pressure to implement Leveson’s proposals, both from the Lib Dems and some of his own backbenchers. If he decides not to, Ed Miliband will immediately start assembling a coalition of pro-regulation MPs and railroad through a law that, in all likelihood, will be more draconian than anything Cameron might introduce.

The whip did not make it explicit, but the implication was that lovers of press freedom such as myself should support whatever form of regulation the Prime Minister proposes because the risk of him doing nothing in response to Leveson is that we’ll end up with something worse. Cling on to Nurse Cameron.

I didn’t buy it. Forty-two Conservative politicians wrote to the Guardian in support of statutory underpinning, but would all of them really vote for a Labour-sponsored bill that allowed the state to control the content of newspapers and magazines in perpetuity? I’m not even convinced the whole of the Parliamentary Labour Party would support it.

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So if Cameron does usher in some form of statutory regulation on the grounds that he has no choice but to go along with Leveson’s recommendations, I’ll find it hard to forgive him. Freedom of the press has been a cornerstone of the British constitution since the Licensing Act expired in 1695 and to go back on that now, some 317 years later, would be a terrible retrograde step. It would also set a dangerous precedent that would be seized upon by leaders in Commonwealth countries and elsewhere who look to Britain as an example.

One thing to watch out for in the coming days and weeks is the description of the new regulatory regime as ‘arm’s length’ or ‘light touch’. Supporters of the Hacked Off campaign will argue that because the regulator will be ‘independent’, i.e. not directly controlled by the government of the day, that statutory underpinning doesn’t amount to state regulation.

That’s misleading. If the new quango is empowered by statute to shut down newspapers or magazines that refuse to sign up to the Grant-Coogan Code of Ethics, then it will be a government regulator regardless of how quasi-autonomous it is. There’s no such thing as a ‘smidgen’ of state control, as Hugh Grant seems to think. It’s binary. You either have a free press or you don’t.

Opponents of statutory regulation are fond of raising practical objections, such as the time it would take to create the new quango or the cost to the taxpayer — both good reasons to go for a revamped form of voluntary regulation instead. But there’s a third practical point that isn’t often raised, namely, the difficulty any government would have in enforcing the new law.

Take the example of John Wilkes, the 18th-century radical journalist and MP who is one of the heroes of Nick Robinson’s new book about the press. As the editor of the North Briton, a muck-raking publication, Wilkes regularly ignored the law that prevented journalists from reporting what was said in parliamentary debates. This became too much for Colonel George Onslow MP, a regular target, who demanded the Commons arrest the printers of the North Briton.

Wilkes, who happened to be the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, arrested the printers himself and immediately released them, having found them innocent on all counts. A messenger was then dispatched to warn Wilkes that if he continued to defy the Commons he would be sent to the Tower, whereupon Wilkes arrested him too.

The Commons responded by sentencing Wilkes in absentia, but an angry mob gathered to protest outside parliament. According to Robinson, ‘They stopped every carriage going in. MPs who backed the ban on the press were manhandled. Even the Prime Minister… was pulled from his carriage, which was then demolished.’ Shortly afterwards, all attempts to enforce the ban on reporting the Commons were abandoned.

Perhaps I’m wrong and Cameron will stand up for freedom of the press. But if parliament does try to meddle with this ancient liberty, I look forward to a campaign of civil disobedience inspired by John Wilkes.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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