The First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
For non-UK readers: following an outbreak of “unethical” press behaviour last year, involving widespread hacking and police bribery, Lord Justice Leveson was called upon to chair a committee into press standards and issue recommendations for cutting out nasty journalism. The current Press Complaints Committee has failed to uphold “civil” standards and protect people from the wrath of news empires, we’re told: and for that we need statute to protect us.
But what politicians have refused to make clear is that “press standards” have absolutely nothing to do with crime. Bribery and hacking are already illegal; the disgrace was that pre-Leveson they hadn’t been enforced. That’s changed. 60 arrests have already been made in the past few months. The problem is not with the press; it’s with enforcement of criminal law.
So – bring on the shambles!
In his wry legal voice, there seemed something politely sensible in Leveson’s suggestion that “an explicit duty for government ministers to uphold and protect the freedom of the press should be enshrined in law as part of any legislation setting up a new watchdog”. Sound good? It does, until the paradox: parliamentary legislation that would regulate the press cannot by its very definition guarantee its freedom. It is impossible. It does not matter whether this watchdog is “independent”; however the committee is composed it will be obliged to enforce parliamentary law. It would mean compulsory arbitration, the prototype for state licensing of publishing which England hasn’t had since 1695 and which every dictator has wanted since 1439.
Leveson, Jefferson – they roll off the tongue so well together. But no matter how slimily he posits himself Leveson is not Jefferson. There are some pleasantly superficial parallels with the First Amendment, are there not? Don’t give in: the American Constitution is not the government; it is the (nearly) unalterable document that defines the government and its institutions. The United States, in other words, defines the press only insofar as it tells the government what to keep away from; Leveson wants to bring it under the law’s influence to “protect” it. And the liberal defence is terrifying.
There are worrying omens afoot: the most liberal proposition for press regulation before the House of Commons is that of a medieval royal charter at the behest of a decaying Privy Council. Cameron, our chief oracle and unlikely hero, has managed to string together a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats that prevents anything in the press being accountable to Parliament. We are told, probably with more than a tooth of truth, that Cameron was persuaded out of his support for regulation by Murdoch’s grovelling fear of losing his right to unethical behaviour.
But who cares? I’m unashamed to be on the side of Murdoch. He is a symptom of crony capitalism, not a free press. It was either Cromwell or Washington who told us never to take away a liberty in the fear that it might be abused; and it was Orwell who told us that just because the right-wing press says something doesn’t make it wrong. Liberals shouldn’t let their dislike of illiberal publishing magnates cloud the political class attempting to push through the most illiberal law since capital punishment.
Cameron’s royal charter is a bloody mess; but it’s at least a relatively harmless mess. Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, trying to push through press regulation for the sake of a brief moment of partisan triumph with populism masquerading as the defence of civil liberty.
If I can recommend something more by Nick Cohen.