Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

Press Freedom: The state goes for everyone (and you have no right to be surprised)

Britain’s journalists ought to be asking themselves an unfamiliar question: what is the point of my life? If they have any knowledge of history, they ought to know that they are the custodians of a tradition of press freedom, which began with John Milton and the “Independents” who opposed both Charles I and the Presbyterian theocrats of the 1640s. The point of having freedom is to hang on to it. Although you would never guess that from imbecilic games the British media plays.

Before I go further, I must acknowledge that you only have to say “press freedom” to see sneers appear on the wolfish lips of the media academics, who provide what intellectual backing the movement towards a state-supervised media possess. ‘What does it mean?’ they ask. Freedom to offend, to distort and to harass. Freedom for Murdoch and Rothermere? Freedom for media conglomerates to cut deals with politicians? (They don’t worry about political interference then, do they?)

I agree up to a point. The idea of press freedom, like the idea of every other kind of freedom, is riddled with absurdities and outright hypocrisies. It is very hard to say what it is.

It is very easy, however, to say what it is not.

It is not state supervision. If you have the state involved in a system that will censure and punish writers and publishers for expressing thoughts that are not offences under law – and, trust me, Britain has more than enough criminal and civil law regulating what we can say and write – then you do not have a free press. End of argument.

The political naivety of Britain’s liberals is as shocking as their failure to stick by basic principles. They imagined that once they let the beast of state power out of its cage, it would confine itself to savaging their enemies.

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