How strong is the Conservative commitment to liberty? Today's Guardian front page holds the answer. A long line of Tory MPs have written to the newspaper, calling for the Prime Minister to seize a 'once-in-a-generation' opportunity to regulate the press. It is surprising as it contains several of the names I would had put down as friends of liberty. Jesse Norman, Andrea Leadsom and Nadhim Zahawi are the last people you’d expect to be writing to the Guardian demanding state action against the newspapers. The Guardian says that the signatories hope to make a 'cross-party consensus' is possible. I bet they do. Politicians have always wanted to get some kind of control over the press (never more so than after the expenses scandal) but they haven’t been able to because the simple fact that the press has never been theirs to regulate. And it's this principle which is now at stake.
The MPs' letter reprises the Hacked Off argument: let’s not get 'obsessed' about the idea of state control being inimical to press freedom. All we need is a teeny tiny bit of state regulation, they say, it would have no practical effect. But you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Either Britain has a press free from the government or it doesn’t. As soon as the device of political control is created, it can be ratcheted up later.
What these Tory MPs call for is a small practical step, but a giant leap for the enemies of press freedom. If it wasn't such a big deal, why would dozens of them have written to the Guardian in an overture to their lefty counterparts? The Hacked Off/Tory 47 hold two positions: a) that statutory regulation is a tiny, almost irrelevant technical measure but b) it is somehow the litmus test of any government response to Leveson. Only one of these two things can be true.
I was on Radio Four's Today programme this morning with Zahawi, who was talking as if the phone hacking scandal proved that press freedom has been an obvious failure. No-one is arguing for an untrammelled press. Journalists need to obey the law, like everyone else. Zahawi may have noticed a few journalists being charged with criminal offences recently, for what they paid private detectives to do. Rules are in place. But he wants extra rules. His teeny tiny government regulation would have zero practical effect, he says – but any solution that involves dozens of MPs is not a solution likely to be conducive to press freedom. But the idea of a cowed press – or one operating under the eye of a government-mandated regulator – seems more attractive to many MPs than the idea of press freedom.
The chilling effect has already started - at least in terms of emboldening MPs. In the last few weeks, I have had an MP and a government minister call asking me to (respectively) discipline a Spectator writer who had annoyed him on Twitter and take down a blog that was 'over-the-top'. (Peter Robins, our brilliant production editor, pointed out that if anything we’d take down a blog that was under-the-top. The Spectator’s unofficial motto is ‘firm but unfair’.)
Such calls didn’t come a year ago. Our MPs are now limbering up for a post-Leveson era where their menaces actually matter. And era where they can - at last! - speak softly while carrying a big stick. Right now, the British press is in the very lucky position of being unaffected by the flattery or threats of MPs: they run the government but they have no power at all over the press. That's how I'd like to keep it. In America, this principle is enshrined in the constitution. In Britain, there is no such protection which is why our liberties are being steadily chiselled away.
Jeremy Paxman once compared the relationship between a journalist and a politician to that between a dog and a lamppost. The lamppost has finally had enough, an wants to strike back. That’s understandable. But it’s a shame that so many Tory MPs should share that urge.
PS It remains a puzzle why these MPs, many of whom have no beef with the press before now, signed such a letter in the first place. There is a rumour that the letter was sent with No10's encouragement, and MPs signed it believing they were being helpful to the Prime Minister. I hope that's untrue.