Anyone picking up a newspaper in recent days will have noticed that the press has been writing a lot about itself. Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press practices and ethics has created anxiety at a time when newspapers were already haemorrhaging sales and influence. David Cameron’s government’s response to the report is nervously awaited, and a group of 42 Tory MPs is urging him to seize a ‘once-in-a-generation’ chance to regulate the press. They threaten to rebel if he doesn’t. The Prime Minister will be vilified whatever he decides to do.
As the oldest continuously published weekly in the English language, The Spectator has seen this all before. The technology changes, but the principles do not. We lambasted the Sunday Times in 1829 for putting the free press at risk with sloppy libels. We are also familiar with the Nick Clegg trick: to declare commitment to a fierce and independent press, while trying to undermine it. In 1833 we criticised the vainglorious Lord Brougham, then Lord Chancellor, for seeking to ‘rivet fetters upon the press which he has so often eloquently eulogised as the main bulwark of our liberties’.
What is new in 2012 is that so many parliamentarians seem unaware of the principle at stake. In their letter demanding regulation, the 42 Tories express bafflement at the ‘obsessive argument’ against statutory regulation. But there is a reason why leaders from Thomas Jefferson onwards have ‘obsessed’ about press freedom: it is, as Churchill put it, ‘the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize’.
No right-thinking person can fail to be appalled at the hacking scandal. The -Leveson inquiry has given us a shocking glimpse into a 21st-century crime. The boom in mobile phones and email accounts has led to a massive black market in illegal information. Hacking is a global criminal industry, for which newspapers are just one client. Ex-hackers explain how stolen secrets can be sold to anyone from cuckolded husbands to insurance company investigators.
But tackling this crime is a matter for the police, not for a press regulator. Laws have been tightened to prevent journalists buying from hackers, and the punishment upgraded from a fine to a jail sentence. But there is no logical link between (already illegal) phone hacking and parliament giving itself the power to set the terms under which the press operates.
While England established the principle of press freedom, the United States did most to codify it under the constitution. And James Madison, the father of that constitution, still has the best answer for those who talk about abuse of freedom of the press. Abuse, he said, ‘is inseparable from the proper use of everything — and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press’. Better to leave a few noxious branches on the tree of press freedom than to prune and ‘injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits’.
Today, laws intended to stop the worst excesses of the tabloids could end by exerting a chilling effect on the rest of press. Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it can be counted on to expand them later. The language being used by the enemies of press freedom in Britain today is positively Orwellian: the state should merely ‘guarantee independence’ of the press regulator. The idea of benign ‘statutory regulation’ was advocated by MPs in 1952 and The Spectator vigorously opposed it then, too. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’
That is what The Spectator will now do. If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.
Some newspapers may take the same view, especially as they mutate into digital form. On current trends the Guardian’s printed edition will run out of readers in February 2020, the Daily Express in May 2019 and the Independent in April 2014. Should they morph into a website (or an iPad app), who will regulate them? And how? Britain’s best-read political website, Guido Fawkes, is domiciled in Ireland. If the fusion of print and digital means the rules of the game need to be redrawn, then it is an ideal time to reapply the principles set down by Milton’s Areopagitica, which encapsulated the doctrine of press freedom three centuries ago.
It may be politically difficult for David Cameron to err on the side of liberty, given the loud and angry voices demanding that he make his swoop now. But the Prime Minister is, at heart, a pragmatist and will realise that statutory regulation of the press would achieve very little — save to crush an ancient liberty that has survived every one of his predecessors. The Spectator would have no part in it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012