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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012