With Lord Leveson’s recommendations increasingly imminent, the Prime Minister kicked off the routine rally of political pre-emptive striking with a warning against pre-judging the findings of his inquiry into the culture, practises and ethics of the press. Undaunted however, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles leapt like a salmon into the fray, swimming upstream against the Downing Street directive, and lending his weight to the anti-legislation lobby by quoting Thomas Jefferson. “For a free society to operate,” he said, “the river of a free press had to flow without restriction,” and as principal author of the Declaration of Independence,
knew a bit about freedom.
However, if Mr Pickles had looked instead to another American heavyweight, Mark Twain, he would have found the former journalist saying of his own profession; “there are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.” No doubt a sentiment with which Hugh Grant, and others on the serrated end of the hacking scandal, would concur.
On the other side of the fence from Eric Pickles, and characteristically not sitting on it, Harriet Harman said the current system of self-regulation had “failed” and advocated the establishment of a “truly independent” body to look into press complaints. After the phone hacking furore, reported payments to police officers and public figures, and the closure of the News of the World amid wider questions over editorial ethics, it is increasingly more difficult to disagree. However, hands up who is “truly independent”?
Speaking to Andrew Marr earlier this month, David Cameron politely declined an invite to guarantee implementing the Leveson findings in full, prior to their publication, reiterating his desire to maintain a “free press”. The Prime Minister’s warning against “heavy handed state intervention” engendered echoes of the “light touch” regulation rumoured to be in the running. ‘The Australian’ newspaper reported that Lord Justice Leveson was leaning towards the system used in the Irish Republic, with legislation extending solely to the establishment of a new press council, with an ombudsman to address complaints.
Exponents of a “free press” label legislation as a last resort, but surely it’s a large and unlikely leap from press regulation to state media censorship. Self-regulation is almost an oxymoron anyway, some will behave because they feel they should do, but many just because they must. The threat of sanction is a necessary motivation for standards. A civilised society needs a free press, but not at any cost.
What differentiates us from China, apart from population, cuisine, and global economic dominance of course, is the courage of democracy to permit criticism from within. At its best, the media provides an unfettered forum that serves the population in holding its leaders and institutions to account, at its worst, a parasitic entity that regurgitates the baser actions of its consumers to feed their own voyeurism. Finding a framework to further the former whilst limiting the latter is the challenge from which the current crop of Westminster tenants must not shrink.