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The danger to a free press

27 September 2011

“In Britain, a free press is non-negotiable,” Ivan Lewis has just said – before suggesting ways that Government might, ahem, oversee
this freedom. The shadow culture secretary has an idea: a register system to license journalists. “As in other professions, the industry should consider whether people guilty of gross
malpractice should be struck off,” he said. He wants “a new system of independent regulation including proper like-for-like redress, which means mistakes and falsehoods on the front
page receive apologies and retraction on the front page”. It’s an odd type of independence: one that would be prescribed by the political elite. And what type of journalists might it
target? I’ve heard ministers complain about the “unethical” and “unprofessional” practices of certain journalists: almost always the ones who cause them the most
problems, like the Andrew Gilligans of this world. Blair’s No. 10 once complained to the BBC about the “John Humphrys problem” – and claimed this was a simple matter of bad
journalism. Certain types of politician have been mulling ways of resolving this “problem” ever since.

There is a wider, more important issue here: why is this even being raised? Many MPs still have their knives out for the press, after the Daily Telegraph’s comprehensive treatment of the
expenses scandal. They are looking at stories of one of their own – Margaret Moran last week, weeping in the dock of a Magistrate’s Court because this pesky
free press got hold of her fraudulent expense claims. You’d be surprised how many MPs hold the press collectively responsible for all this, and moan about disrespect. As Jeremy Paxman
famously put it, the British press treats politicians with the respect that a dog reserves for a lamppost. This well-drenched lamppost has had enough.

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The difference, now, is that the press has become massively vulnerable due to the News of the World hacking scandal and the criminal career of Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator. The
unspeakable measures he took when fishing for stories were so egregious that it closed a newspaper; as my former colleague Ian Kirby wrote in The Spectator, a man who never set foot in the newsroom killed off the title. And it won’t be the last
casualty: the inquiries and court cases will last five years or more. Given that voicemail intercept was a standard tool for investigators working for many British newspapers (as Peter Oborne
detailed in his definitive Spectator cover piece on the subject) there is every chance that the scandal could
spread far wider.

This is the backdrop against which media regulation policy is being made. The Leveson inquiry is expected to be brutal for the newspaper industry. There is
a feeling, across Fleet Street, that the industry is being made to suffer because David Cameron grew too close to Rebekah Brooks and that his means of atonement is to hold an inquiry into
“the culture, the practices and the ethics” of the media. Some form of government regulation (and, ergo, the end of press freedom) looks grimly inevitable. We can laugh at Lewis, and
his madcap ideas – but other, only slightly less sinister plans will not be far behind it.

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Show comments
  • Beth

    Unfortunately, here in Australia, the Australian Labor Party has pounced on the NOTW scandal as an excuse to do the same thing. They are holding a media inquiry that will consider issues such as whether print journalists should be licensed, with the continuous threat hanging over them that if they write something the government doesn’t like, they could lose their licence (my interpretation).

  • Rhoda Klapp

    And just a general comment about the control approach. What one must do (and the late Labour government was blind to this) is to imagine the effect of your proposed controls in the hands of those evil people from the other tribe. What might they achieve, if they use your controls and licences and whatever in their own interest? A policy like, say, ninety day detention might be used to lock up subversive elements, defined by the new boss, for long and repeated periods. A policy of press licencing might be used to get the egregious Monbiot to shut up, or refuse access to the editorial columns to Polly Toynbee, or,..maybe we could do it just a little..

  • David Lindsay

    Baron, it is Britain, under the current allegedly free arrangements, that has acquired a media cartel drawn from a staggeringly narrow field and feeding exactly the same line to audiences among which the differences are purely tribal and historic, but which remain convinced that there are radical, fundamental differences of principle and policy, not only between themselves (which may or may not be true), but also between their preferred sources of news and comment (which simply is not). I propose to put that right.

    Oh, and Orwell is overrated, anyway. He is good. But he is not as good as people think he is. They did him at school, that’s all. And usually quite early on in their secondary schooling. What does that tell you?

  • Baron

    Rhoda @ 1.56, so charmingly put, so right, too.

    Free press? Those who guard the entry into what gets through into the public domain from MSM wouldn’t know what free press was if it bit them in the arse shouting ‘i’m free press’.

    Where’s Mark Steyn in the free press of ours, for instance, ha?

    And another thing:

    David Lindsay, sir, ever thought of applying for a citizenship of say North Korea?

  • Rhoda Klapp

    David, I see. I would approach the problem as being created by the fact of lobby privilege. Which I’d regard as indefensible. You are coming at it from the other side, attempting to fix it by making access fair by control.

    I find myself able to consume Mr Murdoch’s product without liking him or buying his philosophy. I do like the Simpsons more than the Guardian though.

  • David Lindsay

    But Rhoda Klapp, parliamentary lobby access is a privilege, and one by no means universally extended. The same is true of the BBC’s funding structure, of the provision to an entirely private and commercial interest of the 3 button on every remote control in the country, of the guarantees built into the ownership structure of Channel Four, of Sky’s de facto monopoly as a provider, and of the bending double of the rules in order that The Times and the Sunday Times might be owned by a man determined to keep them going out of the profitable parts of his business. With privileges comes responsibilities, including accountability for how those responsibilities are, or are not, being met.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    David L, you don’t really get this freedom thing, do you? Please allow for the possiblity that excessive control of the press may not be the lesser evil.

  • David Lindsay

    Ivan Lewis is already seeing his point proved by the clearly concerted torrent of abuse directed at Ed Miliband. The media are over-mighty subjects as surely as the banks are, and nothing better illustrates that fact than their bank-like hysteria at the suggestion that their vast and completely unaccountable power should be subject to so much as the tiniest check or balance. The revocable licensing of journalists is long, long, long overdue, at the very least where the outlets granted the privilege of parliamentary lobby access are concerned.

    Furthermore, The Times and the Sunday Times are loss-making newspapers that exist only because the rules were bent double so that Rupert Murdoch could buy them in order, to his credit, to fund them out of his profitable interests. So they ought to be required to maintain balance. The publications granted parliamentary lobby access should be required to be balanced among themselves, even if not necessarily within themselves. Broadcasters having such access should be required to give regular airtime to all newspapers enjoying the same access.

    The television license fee should be made optional, with as many adults as wished to pay it at any given address free to do so, including those who did not own a television set but who greatly valued, for example, Radio Four. The Trustees would then be elected by and from among the license-payers. Candidates would have to be sufficiently independent to qualify in principle for the remuneration panels of their local authorities. Each license-payer would vote for one, with the top two elected. The electoral areas would be Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and each of the nine English regions. The Chairman would be appointed by the relevant Secretary of State, with the approval of the relevant Select Committee. And the term of office would be four years.

    We need to ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one national daily newspaper. To ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one national weekly newspaper. To ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one television station. To re-regionalise ITV under a combination of municipal and mutual ownership. And to apply that same model (but with central government replacing local government, subject to very strict parliamentary scrutiny) to Channel Four.

    The above model for the election of the BBC Trustees should be extended to the new Independent National Directors of Sky News, who should come into being entirely regardless of the ownership structure of BSkyB. Each Sky subscriber, or other adult who was registered to vote at an address with a Sky subscription and who chose to participate, would vote for one candidate. The requisite number would be elected at the end. Ideally, their Chairman, appointed by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Select Committee, would be Vince Cable. In any event, and not least in view of cross-subsidy, they might usefully double up as the hitherto most ineffective Independent National Directors of The Times and the Sunday Times. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, the subscribers to those newspapers would by the same means elect their Independent National Directors.

    That would be a start, anyway.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Cynic : 4.44pm

    “Gross malpractice being defined as rocking the political boat, no doubt”

    Well, maybe not quite this severe. Giving credence to anything outside the Overton Window should do it. A bit of difference of opinion is harmless enough, as long as the big imponderables are kept under wraps. For example, if no one suggests anything other than that politicians always act in good faith, then there are never really any grounds for public censure. Mistakes are always innocent, never negligent or fraudulent.

    Look out Private Eye – you’ll be closed down under these rules.

  • Cynic

    …the industry should consider whether people guilty of gross malpractice should be struck off ” Gross malpractice being defined as rocking the political boat, no doubt. The last thing we want is a controlled press. It’s difficult enough as it is to get a proper debate on issues like Neather. It would be impossible if journos were constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of having their licences revoked.

  • whatawaste

    It was ever thus; politicians have always tried to control the press. Read some of John Simpson’s (BBC) books and it is a real eye opener from the time he “doorstopped” harold Wilson at a London station, and Wilson outraged punched John in the stomach to Blair’s anger at John’s reporting of the Gulf War amongst many other stories.

    It is important to remember that there are always two sides to a story and UK politicians as well as HMG have no reservations about lying and deceiving the public and this will never change.

  • DavidDP

    “There is a feeling, across Fleet Street, that the industry is being made to suffer because David Cameron grew too close to Rebekah Brooks”

    Oh bull. As a member of the affected profession, I understand we have to take your comments on this with a pinch of salt, but do you really think that this is why the inquiries were launched? Do you not think that public revulsion played a major part? You seem unable to understand that public revulsion over expenses was matched by public revulsion over the activities of the paper you worked for. Don’t start smearing to try and distract from this.

  • MilkSnatcher

    Looks like Ivan Lewis has just joined Daniel Hannan and the others in wanting to renegotiate our European treaties. Art 10(1) of the Council of Europe Convention says “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.” Nothing about licensing the press.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    Journalists haven’t become disrespectful on their own. They are doing no more than following social trends. Throughout our entire society, disrespect is on the increase – the concept that a human-being, any human-being, is entitled to treatment above that of a working dog, has become outdated. Behaviour which at one time would only have been seen in a temper-tantrum has become commonplace in unemotional situations.

    Politically gagging journalists won’t address this demise. But when was the last time a politician addressed any demise?

  • alexsandr

    mebbe labout need a quango to regulate sex

    I would call it FuckOff

  • Dennis Churchill

    Andy Carpark
    September 27th, 2011 2:38pm
    Withdrawn or not it shows the mindset.
    Culture and history protects liberty not laws. No doubt China and the old Soviet had amazing “Rights” written into their constitution—a lot of help to the millions in their prison camps.

  • Andy Carpark

    Dennis Churchill, Yes, by Advocate General Colomer in the Bernard Connolly case. The blasphemy argument was later withdrawn. More here:


  • Dennis Churchill

    September 27th, 2011 1:26pm
    Yes, I suppose it is all about being more like our Masters in Continental Europe. All very Post Democratic.
    Imagine how the Andrew Neather revealationwould have been dealt with if journalists who offended the establishment could have their licence removed.
    Wasn’t it once proposed, by the European court, that freedom of speech could be restricted in cases of criticism of the EU on the same grounds that blasphemy is?

  • Chris lancashire

    Doesn’t your average socialist just love a bit of regulation? There isn’t any trade, job, profession or area of commerce that can’t be made better by registers, training, OFoffices, inspection, regulation and bureaucracy. Never mind whether it’s effective, how much it costs or whether it smothers initiative and provides a refuge for bad management (“We operated the procedures”)- it must be good for us.

    Keep out of journalism, bankers and “unregulated” nurse assistants – all recent targets of the regulators.

    Just to finish, the most risible has to be the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – set up after the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers disaster. Strange we have heard no comment from the on the recent story of travellers enslaving workers.

    Unfortunately I have no faith that a government of any colour will stem this tide.

  • denis cooper

    As I understand the National Union of Journalists already operates what is in effect its own registration scheme.

    So that, for example, any journalist who fails to automatically condemn the odious BNP and now the vile EDL, or who fails to automatically support those brave and always non-violent defenders of freedom and democracy in the UAF, or who dares to question the benefits of mass immigration and the great enrichment of our society through multi-culturalism, or who openly queries why the **** the Gulliver of our sovereign national Parliament has allowed itself to get tied down through the multiple Lilliputian bonds of the EU and the ECHR and the UN and all those other worthless foreign entanglements, aka “our international obligations”, will be putting his journalistic career and therefore his risk.

    I believe that a rather similar system of journalistic self-regulation operated very successfully for many years in the Soviet Union.

    So really there’s no need for this Labour neo-fascist to propose a state registration scheme for journalists, it’s all in hand anyway.

    Incidentally, what happened about the promised update article about Andrew Neather, or are we still stuck with the Spectator’s 2009 “clarification”?—

    “What’s missing is not only a sense of the benefits of immigration but also of where it came from.

    It didn’t just happen: the deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000 until at least February last year, when the Government introduced a points-based system, was to open up the UK to mass migration.”

    Still on board with that, are we?

  • Andrew

    You are right, there is something rather sinister in complaints about journalistic intrusion. I can think of nothing worse than a compliant 4th estate, so let them dig to their hearts content. If they are wrong they should take that responsibility and pay recompense; in cash if need be. If they are right, then we are all better off for knowing whatever they have unearthed.

    I hesitate to mention Andrew Gilligan and Frankie Boyle in the same sentence but both are challenging and have generated considerable controversy. But both address a adult audience.

    Is it so unreasonable to to let them say what they want and let adults make an informed choice about whether they want to listen.

  • Ross Matthewman

    I’m afraid I happen to quite like Mr Lewis’s proposals. For far too long the press have been running wild and printing whatever they like with no regard for whether it is actually true and whos lives/careers it might destroy. Its time they were taken down a peg or two.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    I’m sure the spectre of government control won’t bother anyone at the Spectator.

  • Ed P

    Have these idiots never read 1984?

    The Welfare Party is sinking into richly deserved oblivion.

  • Sally Chatterjee

    There they go again. There are already strict laws on libel and intercepting communications. But rather than enforce existing laws, Labour are talking about a new quango to licence the media.

  • Nickle

    Don’t worry. The bloggers will take over when the press gets its nuts cut off, and expose the hundreds of Peers claiming for attendance allowances when they didn’t use their passes.

  • Ross Matthewman

    I’m afraid Mr Lewis’s proposals sound actually rather attractive. Why shouldn’t the press be forced to apologise when they print things that are blatantly not true and ruin people’s lives and careers?

  • TomTom

    I look forward to the Conference Debate on Corrupt and Jailed MPs and why so few of them a) get sentenced b) serve their sentences

    Perhaps Ivan Lewis could also discuss harassment in the workplace and whether MPs should desist from sexual harassment of civil servants ?

  • Tyranosaurus

    Not turning out to be a good day for democracy is it. So far we have had Lewis wanting to control who gets to function as a journalist and who does not (though anyone writing from off-shore such as Guido Fawkes will escape) and Milliband deciding tax rates based on what he likes and what he doesn’t (at least that should keep the price of Chardonnay down).

    What’s next from the peoples party?

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