A love for freedom of the press inspired Milton, Voltaire, Jefferson, Madison, Mill and Orwell. Ringing declarations of the right of citizens to read and write what they choose have run through constitutions and charters of liberties. Modern Britain being the way it is, however, the lofty rhetoric of the past has sunk to debates about celebs and breasts. Specifically, the breasts on page three of The Sun, and the tits who publish them.
Evan Harris, tribune of the Hacked Off campaign, makes a plausible argument that an effective press regulator could ban page three girls. After Lord Justice Leveson hears all the evidence of mass wrongdoing by journalists, he is likely to recommend a media authority that would treat journalists as if they were professionals akin to doctors or lawyers. Once that step has been taken, Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, could say that no employer allows boorish men to stick up pictures of naked women in the workplace. They demean and intimidate female colleagues. But the Sun still prints pictures ‘it would never put on the walls of its own newsroom’. Why would a reputable regulator overseeing journalists committed to new professional standards allow that?
The battles around Leveson are likely to turn vicious. Fleet Street knows how much it may lose, and knows that it has no one to blame but itself. Not a single hacking story the Leveson inquiry has told us about was in the public interest. Journalists and their managers had the powers of a secret police force to monitor private conversations. All they did was hack the phones of celebrities and the victims of crime. They cannot produce in their defence one example of illegal surveillance being used to expose an abuse of power or corruption of government.
It is not even as if everyone demanding regulation is an authoritarian. The academics around the Hacked Off campaign are in my experience products of late-20th–century leftism. Their only enemy is corporate power, and they can always find reasons to be somewhere else when basic liberties need defending. Nor do I see why the freedoms of this country should be torn up because Hacked Off’s star witness Max Mosley believes that if a gentleman wishes to hire whores by the half-dozen to beat his bottom to a pulp, it is nobody’s business but his own. But Evan Harris could not be more different. He is one of the most impressive and principled politicians I know: and a friend and comrade in the campaign for libel reform. Meanwhile Brian Cathcart, the driving force behind Hacked Off, was a serious journalist before he became an academic, and published a fine investigation into the deaths of soldiers at the Deepcut barracks.
In other words, if you want to take them on, you need to do better than reproduce the self-interested snarls of wounded Fleet Street editors. You make a start when you grasp that journalism has never been and cannot be a profession. Freedom of the press is the freedom of all citizens to write and broadcast. Once that freedom was as risible as the old joke that capitalism meant that everyone was free to book a room at the Ritz. In theory, everyone had the right to enjoy the freedom to publish. In practice, only the employees of public or private media corporations could exercise it. Journalism was not a profession but it was a kind of guild. If the Leveson inquiry had happened 30 years ago, it could have proposed tighter regulation of the journalists’ club. Now laws on the press affect everyone who blogs, tweets and posts. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we are all journalists now.
Leveson knows it. And the contortions of those who hope for statutory regulation suggest that they know it too. They can no longer define a ‘newspaper’. Is it an established title or is it every news site and blog published in Britain? They try to escape modernity by using advertising and readership ‘thresholds’ to determine which sites should fall under the ambit of the new regulator and which should not. They fail to understand that the most obscure blogs can receive huge audiences if links and search engines direct readers to a sensational post. In desperation, they say that newspapers can do more harm than isolated bloggers or Tweeters. This is not true either. Malicious posts on local sites concern the clients of libel lawyers as much as the writing in the national press.
As with legitimate constraints on free speech, so with illegitimate suppression. Case after case now shows that the battle against censorship has moved online. The Crown Prosecution Service’s persecution of Paul Chambers for joking about blowing up an airport and the Trafford Housing Trust’s decision to punish a Christian employee for voicing his opposition to gay marriage on Facebook are the new free-speech battles for the 21st century.
I do not wish to pre-empt his lordship, but Leveson seems to want to have an exclusive form of control for kite-marked approved newspapers which are covered by his new regulator. Newspapers that refuse to join — and Private Eye –may be one — and everyone else who writes on the web will continue to suffer the punitive costs of our archaic libel laws.
This strikes me as not only contrary to natural justice but as an anachronism in itself. The arrival of the web demands wholesale legal reform. We need cheap means to resolve disputes — and if that means cutting costs by substituting the continental system of inquisitorial magistrates for our ferociously expensive adversarial system in free speech cases, so be it. We need independent judges to hear cases rather than regulators who are susceptible to political pressure. Above all, we need consistency. If Hacked Off wants to ban page three, it should be forced to make the argument for banning all images of naked women everywhere.
In their hearts everyone around Leveson knows this. The peeping toms who bugged celebrities are not in trouble because they broke professional codes and moral guidelines — though they did. They are in trouble because they broke the law of the land, which applies to everyone.
At a time when all can publish, we need one law for all. Anything else will seem as out of date as hot metal presses.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012