Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Press has Been the Last Bastion of Freedom -- Until Now

by Melanie Phillips

There must surely be many who are mystified by the Prime Minister's pistols-at-dawn challenge to Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband today over the issue of press freedom.
Last week, David Cameron shocked his colleagues by abruptly ending cross-party negotiations over the implementation of the Leveson proposals for press regulation.
The sticking point was whether the Royal Charter for such regulation — itself a watered-down compromise on Leveson — should be enshrined in statute or not. Mr Cameron declared that doing so would threaten press freedom, and so he could not support it.

Doubtless, the great British public is quite baffled by the fuss. Why, many must be thinking, is statutory regulation being made into such a big deal when the newspapers have so often behaved so badly?

To which one can only say — admittedly, as a member of the press — that this is a very big deal indeed. For press freedom is the one that guarantees all the rest.

Without it, the corrupt, the criminal and the compromised can get clean away with wrongdoing — and thus uninvigilated, the institutions of a free society would turn rotten and disintegrate.

Yet this crucial freedom is about to be thrown away.

For sure, phone hacking was entirely wrong — but this is now (belatedly) being dealt with by dozens of arrests and prosecutions. Other possible press wrongs, such as breach of privacy, harassment, data theft and so on, are also covered by existing laws.

What is now being proposed, however, takes us onto a quite different plane. For more than half a century, as Professor Tim Luckhurst has informed us in his fine pamphlet Responsibility Without Power: Lord Justice Leveson's Constitutional Dilemma, Parliament has consistently upheld the view that independence from the state is essential to a free press.

Now the unholy alliance of Labour, the Lib Dems and the unelected campaigners of Hacked Off seek to bring that independence to an end. But as Professor Luckhurst observes, if the Government holds journalism to account, then who will hold the Government to account?

The real agenda of these campaigners is not their specious aim of 'accountability'. It is rather, as Professor Luckhurst writes, a toxic mix of their desire to control the press; their elitist contempt for popular newspapers on the grounds that these are fundamentally so trivial that people shouldn't read them; and, most lethal of all, their certainty that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the public interest and what the public is interested in.

To which one might add that they alone claim the power to determine the former, while aiming to suppress the latter altogether.

The press is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. For even if this compromise Royal Charter is not enshrined in statute, what is being proposed will still tie the press up in knots. And this will sound the death knell for a free society.

Because the essence of a free press is the ability to publish what someone who has something to hide does not want you to know. And the downside of regulating against press abuses of innocent folk is that this inescapably hands an armoury of weapons to those who want to prevent the press from exposing wrongdoing.

The brutal fact is that the more the press is made accountable to an outside regulator — as opposed to its readers, who can always stop buying papers of which they disapprove — the more freedom dies.

This may be inconvenient, indigestible or intolerable to some, but it is true.

The press exists to invigilate abuses of power, wherever they are found. And now its ability to discharge that vital duty is being threatened by just such an abuse of power — by the campaigners of Hacked Off.

They claim that statutory regulation is necessary to protect the victims of the press. But who other than the press will protect society from the hate-filled humbug and hypocrisy of Hacked Off?

For these people demand full transparency of connections between the press and politicians — and yet refuse to give details of their own funding or contacts with MPs.
And now, a document leaked at the weekend has revealed how they have secretly targeted Tory MPs 'who want to bring David Cameron down' to get them to sabotage the Prime Minister's intention to block statutory Press regulation.

Their aim, states the document, is to create division by reaching out to these Tory malcontents — who, it says contemptuously, are likely to be people they 'intuitively dislike, distrust and despair of', but who are nevertheless to be used to procure Parliamentary victory.

It also turns out that Hacked Off has been advised by BBM, a lobbyist firm set up by two of Tony Blair's former campaign chiefs.

This strategy document was leaked by a Hacked Off whistleblower who was shocked by their underhand, cynical and manipulative approach. Yet these are the holier-than-thou campaigners who claim to be opposed to secret, underhand deals between politicians and the media!

And the humbug-in-chief is surely their front-man, Hugh Grant, whose impassioned tirades against press errors, rumour-mongering and lies should surely be immortalised on Hollywood celluloid.

Yet after the Prime Minister abandoned cross-party talks, Mr Grant tweeted: 'Rumour in Westminster that editor of Times instructed Cameron to call off talks. And our PM did as he was told. Murdoch rules. Still.'

This was immediately denied in the strongest terms by Downing Street. So who will legislate against Mr Grant for spreading defamatory and malicious rumours he didn't bother even to check?

But then, as he has told us, he is in fact doing 'the will of the people' by levering press regulation onto the statute book. Well, last time I looked, the will of the people was expressed through the politicians it elected, not some actor with a Mussolini complex.

It is this most anti-democratic attitude that is now holding the Government's legislative programme to ransom, with Bill after Bill being hijacked by attempts to smuggle Leveson regulation into statute.

Such madness is a kind of legislative terrorism, and bespeaks a total breakdown of both order and proportion in the political class. And if this succeeds, the consequences will be dire.

For hundreds of years, no other country's press has been more anarchic, muck-raking, scandalous, scabrous and disreputable. No other society has been more free than Britain. The two are intimately connected.

In recent decades, however, this priceless liberty has been progressively eroded by the onslaught from the left aiming to transform Britain and destroy its characteristics as a nation.

Its powers of self-government have been crippled by the EU. Its unique concept of liberty has been shrunk by European human rights law which makes freedom conditional on what judges say is to be permitted.

The constitution has been dismembered, the House of Lords emasculated. Left-wing ideologues have all but destroyed the education system and the family unit, squashed dissent in the universities and become dominant in the law, medicine and other professions.

And through the BBC, that state-licensed media behemoth dominating public debate with its Guardian 'group think' on every issue under the sun, they have managed to shunt the very centre of political gravity onto their own ground.

The press is, in fact, the last remaining bastion of free thinking that the left has not managed to conquer. Until now.

Tamed, regulated, conformist newspapers produce tamed, regulated, conformist societies. If MPs vote to bring that about today, it will be to their undying shame — and it will be the nation's tragedy.

Melanie Phillips

Source: http://melaniephillips.com/the-press-has-been-the-last-bastion-of-a-free-society-until-now

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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