Coffee House

Tory MPs vs free press

9 November 2012

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.

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  • perdix

    If the press wants to remain free they should stop encouraging people to go on to the internet to read unsubstantiated rumours which they themselves are too chicken to report openly. That includes The Daily Telegraph.

  • David Lindsay

    Most people in this country probably assume that newspapers have always been subject to a statutory licensing system, and would be horrified to be told that that was not the case. In a sense, they are right. It is called the parliamentary lobby. In broadcast terms, Sky and the BBC now balance each other rather well, and no one can receive the BBC News Channel who cannot also receive Sky News.

    Some requirement would be no bad thing at all, that the papers granted lobby access should 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. Set, of course, within the context of the restoration of the proper lobby system, although with MPs’ staff members having the same rights of access throughout the Palace of Westminster. In fact, the signature of one seat-taking MP ought to grant any journalist lobby access. That, and nothing else. Who’s in charge there? Who’s in charge of the country?

    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. At the very least, there ought to be a fairness requirement (which I have rather hilariously been told already existed, when it looked as if I might have been well enough to stand for Parliament) for the two newspapers that only exist because they are considered so important that the rules have been bent double in order to keep them going.

    For 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.

    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.

    One would not need to be a member of the Trust (i.e., a license-payer) to listen to or watch the BBC, just as one does not need to be a member of the National Trust to visit its properties, or a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to be rescued by its boats. That model could certainly be applied to everything from the Press Complaints Commission to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and arguably even to the Supreme Court, although in that case with only one candidate per region elected and with a vacancy arising only when a sitting member retired or died.

    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 or, even better, Tom Watson. 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.

  • Nicholas Storey

    Liberty died in modern Britain a long time ago. Living in Brazil, where personal liberty is still understood and respected, and seeing modern Britain from a distance, makes it very easy to see that Tin-Hitlerism is IN over there. Yet no one stops to ask: quis custodiet custodes ipsos…

  • sarah

    I was a journalist and I worked in the newsroom of a broadcaster.

    Most of what you see, read and hear is copied and pasted directly from a Reuters database and press releases from PR agencies.

    Daily banal decisions affect how the news is reported/not reported and spun to you in order to attract audiences, viewing figures and hit rates. Phrasing the headlines to leave the suspicion that somebody may have been killed rather than injured, probing vulnerable people for emotive and personal information, editing the interview to make it most sensational and to attract most public comment.

    Then there are the cliques, the nepotism, egos and back-biting keeping employees’ free expression in line.

    Then there are the social and open and not so open professional strings attaching the BBC to The Guardian to Channel 4 and then out to other columnists, editors, authors, producers and directors, business and I feel confident in saying, to politicians.

    It’s not a free press, it’s an organised press.

    Our country is being partially run by an unelected network of people who are ill-qualified, hidden from view and almost entirely unaccountable. And of course they want to keep it that way, and they have the perfect tool to try to do so – control of information.

    Any time you are left with the impression that the press is on your side or that they are the better of two evils, ask yourself who’s given you that impression.

    • Daniel Maris

      You seem to have a problem distinguishing the self-organisation that happens in all areas of human activity – from sausage production to football to stamp collecting – and state regulation by politicians or their appointees.

      What hope is there for you if you can’t understand that distinction.

      To defend press freedom is not to defend the cosy world of news making, anymore than defending free elections means defending MPs’ expenses claims.

      • Sarah

        I do defend press freedom. I don’t defend press licentiousness. I don’t defend a press oligarchy.

        A regulator is not an editor. It is a right of reply.

      • Sarah

        Also football, sausage production and stamp collecting are state regulated. And most likely better for it.

  • TomTom

    You cannot hope to
    bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the
    man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
    Wolfe, Humbert

  • Daniel Maris

    I completely oppose government regulation of the press, or indeed any voluntary scheme of regulation.

    We should have instead some clear legal principles:

    1. There should be a definition of areas where one may expect the press not to intrude without showing a clear and overriding public interest: private homes where privacy may be expected, private communications, hospitals and so on.

    2. The right of correction and reply with equal prominence through a quick small claims court system. This would save the cost of libel trials and provide effective remedy without financial compensation (except perhaps a “token” amount e.g. up to £1000)

    3. The equivalent of the fourth amendment – a real right to free speech.

    • Rhoda Klapp

      That would be the fourth amendement on illegal search and seizure. Which we could also do with.

  • Collamore

    The same newspaper industry that has for years been cheerleaders for regulating every other industry in Britain, doesn’t want to be regulated itself.
    What hypocrites.

  • Ian Walker

    All you need is a small change in the law – any report by a journalist that uses un-named sources should be treated, if the report turns out to be false, defamatory or libellous, as if the journalist themselves had made the statement.

    This would put the burden of checking for accuracy and provenance of a source on the journalist BEFORE publication. So you still have a free press, but you can’t abuse those press freedoms by publishing tittle-tattle as ‘fact’ and hiding behind anonymity.

    • Hugh

      That’s not a change in the law. The journalist is legally liable for any report he writes, whether the sources are un-named or not. Plaintiffs tend to concentrate on suing the publisher because they have more money.

  • j

    fed up with media gapping on to something and going on about so much. fed up with media full stop. i’ve not bought a newspaper in 5 years and can only put up with the rolling 24 news on the telly for about 30 mins. i think we have a got to a stage where there is to much info and we being bombarded non stop.

    • pfcl

      For once Nick Clegg had it right when he said that the nation needed a “free, raucous, Independent press”. An un-regulated press is not always pretty. As a journalist with more than thirty years experience I cringe sometimes at the more raucous output of some of the red-tops. Sometimes an un-regulated press gets it wrong, even badly wrong. But the law as it stands is capable of dealing with the worst excesses of a minority. It cannot be right to muzzle the responsible many to tackle the sins of the irresponsible few. A democracy interferes with a free press at its peril; baby and bath-water perhaps?

      Paul Leighton, former President of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.

      • Sarah

        You’re confusing licentiousness for freedom. Most of what you read comes from a few sources.

      • Fraser Nelson

        pfcl, you do know that Clegg has given his backing to Leveson before seeing the conclusions? Afraid he is not being v liberal on this.

        • PaulFrancis Leighton

          I know he is as malleable, shifty and unreliable as the day is long. But his original observation was right. If the wretched man cannot stand by that since, I guess I am not going to be too surprised.

          What is more worrying is that Norman Fowler, former Times journalist, really ought to know better. Truthfully, those other Conservatives, I will not grace them with the description of Tories, are not the ‘usual suspects’ That bothers the hell out of me. It appears that the Tory Libertarians have left the field. As a journalist I really have to fight the weasels on the backbenches responding in this way to the lynch mob!
          Can we really not persuade some of them to continue the fight for press freedom? I have just sent six letters and e-mails to MPs I know, among those who have apparently turned.

          At least those of us in the CIoJ are maintaining the principles that have been dear to journalists’ hearts since we first organised as a profession – not a trade – as a profession, in 1884. Not sure the NUJ has ever seen it that way. Sad.

    • HooksLaw

      Agree. Newspapers are crap. BTW – its not rolling 24 hour news, its repeating the same news every 15 minutes. This is why the News media need to invent and exagferate news.

      Sadly for them, there has not been a good disaster for a while, I strongly suspect that most news producers are to be found at the foot of their beds every night praying to God for thanks for Jimmy Saville.

  • dalai guevara

    Every time something goes seriously wrong in this country, we have a default approach to resolving the conundrum by:

    a- calling for more regulation
    b- renaming the regulatory body that has failed
    c- not applying the law that already exists to tackle the issue

    Use the existing laws to tackle the existing problems that exist in our society. Everything else is….a tactic of diversion.

    • Daniel Maris

      Very, very true Dalai.

  • RatherAnnoyedPleb

    Am I the only person surprised by Radio Four’s spirited defence of the Tories this morning, and their liverish denunciation of ‘witch hunts?’ Their suggestions that victims might be making it up (the *BBC* FFS, try suggesting that about rape victims? But it’s OK when it’s the BBC in the frame)?

    Allusions to ‘The Crucible.’

    Blimey, these political and media types don’t like it up ’em, a bit of scrutiny, do they?

    They are the first to take up flaming torches and pitchforks when any other group, be it bankers or coppers, are deemed to have made ‘institutionalised’ errors. The plastic inquisitors are hypocrites, the people who sheltered Saville and his ilk because they were ‘talent.’ Assume the position, please, because this time you are on the end of the system you created and I’m laughing my head off.

    I was about in the early 90’s when the Torquemadas of the BBC were having fun at the Stehpen Lawrence enquiry. Now it’s their turn.

    • Maggie

      The BBC always like to pretend they stand apart from the pack. Even while they’re in the process of destroying someone’s reputation they assume a pretence of lofty impartiality.

    • Steerage

      The ‘Newsnight’ Welsh homes report was a piece of cheap BBC opportunism, trying desperately to prove they were really clean on paedophilia.

      Oddly it was put together by the ‘Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ on their behalf. Yes I haven’t either.

      There wasn’t a scrap of new evidence proffered, yet Cameron was badly advised (by whom?) to rapidly put two more enquiries in place to avoid appearing indifferent to child sexual abuse.

      Those adults who make accusations to the media have to have them examined and questioned, just as the police and courts would. And if they sound unlikely as many Welsh ones do, they should be tested, for logic and likelihood.

      Such accusers must be asked at least this one question: have you witnessed any abuse where you can name the abuser, and have told the police?

      The Schofield list provided Cameron with the well-taken opportunity to stop Witchfinder General Watson, in his tracks and offer some support to gay (and non-gay) Tories who are being smeared up and down the internet.

      Peter Tatchell should be thankful Cameron got his cochones back, not complaining about his remarks. He doesn’t seem to know just how devastating internet naming is for the innocent, be they gay or straight.

      You can’t put a reputation back unless you have very deep pockets to sue like Lord McAlpine.

    • HooksLaw

      Well thats because the ‘witch hunt’ was perpetrated by ITV.

  • Sarah

    And then there is what the British press does to British women.

    Where’s there concern for freedom when it comes to women’s right to be free from life-altering discrimination, perpetual fear and year on year rising violence that they stoke and get sustenance from?

    The so-called free expression in this country is overwhelmingly dominated by the voices of one group to the detriment of every other.

    • itdoesntaddup

      I don’t think that feminism is under represented in the press.

      • Sarah

        Women are hopelessly under-represented and badly represented in the press. Both as writers and as subjects.

        It’s a wall of noise coming from men. With many of the most unhelpful attitudes towards women getting most airtime. We’re either commodities, victims or oddities.

        The British press certainly doesn’t feel free or freeing from a female perspective, it feels stifling and overbearing.

        • EndOfTrolls

          They are certainly not under-represented here what with you, sarah and Mizz Hardman monopolising the threads.

          • Sarah

            I’m not the press. I’m merely sniping from the sidelines.

            The people who hold the ground with the best accoustics are those journalists and editors who work on well-funded, well-connected papers and periodicals with provinance, such as this one. Which overwhelmingly hire and promote the opinions of male writers, most of whom are dyed-in-the-wool chauvinists.

            The free press is nothing of the kind.

            No doubt the argument would be that the answer to this is more free press. Except it will always mean even more of the same.

            • Coffeehousewall

              Then start a newspaper for women by women.

              • sarah

                No, rather than go into the throng of male writers all baying for attention over one another, holding my hand up and saying “listen to me, listen to me, I’m trying to play men’s game with my hands tied behind my back, a gag on and a great big bosom with my trident nestled in it”, I’d rather hold men to account for how they misrepresent women, incite hatred and violence against us, and promote themselves at our expense, it’s much more satisfying. I think I might start a regulatory committee for women, by women.

  • Sarah

    Who’s investigating the investigators?

  • Sarah

    There is no freedom without responsibility or accountability. That is what “the press” wishes to have.

    Your freedom only goes as far as the point it starts imposing on mine. The media and press more than any other institutions in this country utterly transgress that boundary.

  • Richard 111

    I was phoned by The Telegraph earlier this week about why I had cancelled my subscription nearly a year ago. My comments were that nobody bothered to call at the time I did so whilst I would not give “two hoots” if the paper went bust. And this from someone who bought the paper almost without fail every day for 45 years.

    I think that the internet has much to blame for a spiral into the cess-pit. Instead of journalists seeking after the truth they have become fixated on tittle tattle and a merry-go-round of gossip and rumour becoming fact when there is little or no substance. Yes, there is a conspiracy – one to smear a group of people whilst glossing over the misdeeds of others who are members of the wider chapel.

    Occasionally I know enough about an event to realise the reporting is either misleading or inaccurate. Enough of these experiences make me sceptical about a lot that is written. There has been too much drinking in the last chance saloon for matters to be left as they are.

    • Maggie

      I’ve just cancelled my Spectator subscription.

      • Fraser Nelson

        Your loss!

      • Hugh

        Because it was a surprise this right-leaning comment magazine doesn’t favour greater regulation of the press?

      • Julian F

        Thereby exercising your right to consume or not to consume the products of a free press. Choice – great, ain’t it? Probably best not to seek to deny it to others.

    • HooksLaw

      The Telegraph has descended into an appalling newspaper. If I had a Spectator subscription I would certainly have cancelled it after Mr Nelsons ‘tweet’ remarks.

  • JP

    “Jurno In Don’t Regulate Jurnos Shocker”

    • Hugh

      “MPs in don’t report things about me I don’t want others to know shocker”

  • Sarah

    Fraser, it is not *state* or government regulation, it is *public* regulation.

    Also known as public accountability. Just like every other body in the country.

    The press isn’t a bunch of individuals, it’s an industry, more than the sum of its parts. Laws designed to regulate personal and private behaviour are not adequate.

    It has grown to have extraordinary and unchecked power and influence over the public and its institutions, it has vested interests and non-transparent practices. It has been shown to be corrupt and dangerous, undemoractic, at times lethal. It cannot regulate itself.

    • HooksLaw

      ‘isn’t a bunch of individuals, it’s an industry’ – correct and its on its last legs and desperate to both survive and avoid its responsibilities.
      Its been exposed over intrusions into personal privacy and therefore it seeks to use what power it can to pressurise politicians.
      The Guardian has been blatantly bigoted in its attacks over NewsCorp as an example of it putting its own commercial interests first.

  • MikeBrighton

    I don’t want Tom Watson and his ilk regulating the press I read.

    • Sarah

      I don’t want Rebecca Brooks and Fraser Nelson regulating the public ethics that are imposed on me.

      • MikeBrighton

        If you don’t like it don’t read it. I don’t doubt the good intentions of Hacked off nor your comment…but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

        Do you think MPs expenses would have been publicised by a government regulated press? Imagine what would have happened under Blair & Alistair Campbell if they held the strings of press regulation in their hands….already you see the malign partisan influence of Tom Watson in the paedophile panic

        • Sarah

          This is such a weak argument. What the press publish has an effect on people regardless or whether they read it or not.

          Or do you think propaganda only effects subscribers?

          • MikeBrighton

            I don’t think it’s a weak argument but I take you point. My point is that the press should be able within the bounds of taste and legality be able to “publish and be damned”. The hacking was illegal.

            • sarah

              “My point is that the press should be able within the bounds of taste and
              legality be able to “publish and be damned”. The hacking was illegal.”

              And regulation is part of that legality.

              The law needs to keep up with society. Society is realising that press propaganda has the power to harm (not offend, harm). And to steal Douglas Murray’s phrase, it has no natural predators – certainly not those it does harm.

              • andagain

                “And regulation is part of that legality.”

                What on earth does that mean? Hacking was illegal. It would have been just as illegal whether there were a lot of government regulations or not.

                On the other hand, if the NOTW had had to please a regulator, I suppose they might have made a point of only publishing stories that hurt people the regulator disliked.

                • Sarah

                  What it means is that hacking laws are only part of the picture. A tiny part of the picture. Hacking is illegal, but many other harmful press activitities are not, currently.

                  Regulation is about a bigger picture. About treating the press as more than a group of individuals governed by criminal law. It’s about navigating the mass media and its possible abuses of power.

                • andagain

                  Regulation is not about stopping hacking, because that is already illegal. Regulation is not about stopping the publication of untrue stories, because that is already illegal.

                  Regulation is about stopping the publication of true stories.

                  Tell me when we should stop people from telling the truth. Tell me who should make the decision to stop people from telling the truth.

          • Hugh

            Propaganda is actually more effective with government control of the press. A free press mitigates against the impact of propaganda.

            • Sarah

              Propaganda may well be more effective with government control. But it’s plenty effective enough with media control. It would become less effective with a public right of reply.

              • Hugh

                Is it really? Could you outline for us a few of the recent successful propaganda campaigns.

          • blingmun

            “Or do you think propaganda only effects subscribers?”

            Have you ever tried advertising something? It’s a hell of lot harder to flog stuff than conspiracy theorists seem to think. As to your question re subscribers, I’m no expert but I suspect the influence of a newspaper is greatly reduced when no fucker reads it.

            • Hugh

              See the Independent for details.

            • Sarah

              Which isn’t what was said. It was suggested that a paper ceases to be effective if I don’t read it.

        • Sarah

          Do I think MPs expenses would have been published by a government-regulated press?

          Yes I do. If that government regulation was transparent and public. I think in fact it would have lead to exposure earlier and more comprehensively because the subject would have been raised in a pubic committee at an earlier stage.

          However, do I think that what is being proposed is government regulation?

          No I don’t. I think what is being proposed is independent regulation. And personally, I have greater faith in independent press regulators for exposing and dealing with wrong doing than I do in a bunch of unaccountable PPE and media grads with an eye on their future political careers.

          • MikeBrighton

            Do I think MPs expenses would have been published by a government-regulated press?

            Yes I do. If that government regulation was transparent and public.
            I think in fact it would have lead to exposure earlier and more
            comprehensively because the subject would have been raised in a pubic
            committee at an earlier stage.

            I’m deeply suspicious that this would not be true. They would have regarded the CD that the Telegraph got as stolen and would have gone to great lengths to stop publication, a regulated press would have been extra ammo.

            To me the partisan aspects of the whole discussion worry me, the spectre of Tom Watson and co looks to me like the outlines of a stitch up. I just don’t trust them. The press is regulated in places like Iran, Cuba and North Korea, I don’t want to join this unhappy crew

          • Hugh

            “Do I think MPs expenses would have been published by a government-regulated press?

            Yes I do. If that government regulation was transparent and public.”

            Despite the rather compelling evidence that MPs on both sides of the house transparently, publicly and consistently voted against releasing that information?

          • blingmun

            The distinction between “State” and “public” being what precisely? How would the regulators get paid, who would pay them, where would the money come from? If the newspapers were being asked to fork up who would enforce payment?

            • Sarah

              How does the BBC get paid? Who pays them? Where does the money come from? Who enforces payment? Is the BBC independent of the state?

              If a regulator has a remit to be independent, it can be independent.

              The regulator isn’t going to be an editor, it’s going to be standards authority.

          • Amews

            Sarah – what planet do you live on?

            For a start, where are the ‘accountable trained professionals’ going to come from?

            The point of a free press is the wide spectrum of views expressed. These ‘professionals’ are inevitably going to espouse one point of view – what if it’s not yours? Who is going to arbitrate?

            • Sarah

              And there will still be a wide spectrum of views expressed.

              Why do you think regulation would suppress views? Regulation, if anything, will break the stranglehold of the dominant views and allow other views some air.

        • Maggie

          “If you don’t like it don’t read it”.
          Perhaps you haven’t noticed but that is exactly what people are doing. Have you seen press circulation figures recently? Or viewing figures for news and current affairs?

          • blingmun

            So that’s a good thing then because people are exposed to a multiplicity of ideas and views on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs etc. Power is being diffused from media moguls and BBC executives and handed over to whichever individual can inform and entertain. Some find this change vulgar but they’re the same people who thought the plebs wouldn’t be able to cope with democratic elections.

            • blingmun

              PS – God bless capitalism, free markets and the free movement of ideas which have enabled the digital revolution, home computing and the world wide web.

      • EndOfTrolls

        What a ridiculous statement – how are you forced to read the Spectator or any News International publication? I choose not to read the lies and bile in the Guardian or to believe all that I see and hear on the BBC. What is it about the left and news control? Goebbels and Tom Watson, Mandelson, Campbell, McBride and Draper would make appropriate bedfellows.

    • itdoesntaddup

      They already regulate the BBC. What’s not to like?

      • MikeBrighton

        That is a very strong argument against press regulation. It’s regulated by Ofcom and look at it’s very strong left wing bias

    • HooksLaw

      No one is saying that parliament should regulate the press. Pretending so is crass.

      • blingmun

        No one is saying that this initial step should be the thin end of the wedge. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen in practice.

        Once the precedent for press regulation is set, it will be a much smaller step to bring in further legislation. The civil service, politicians and big business will all find that controlling what we can say about them serves their interests better than the mere principle of free speech or an attachment to the truth. Just as the power of influence is switching from the likes of Rupert Murdoch to individual bloggers and YouTubers (e.g. Guido Fawkes or Pat Condell whose video rants get millions of views), we have people like you popping up to surrender control to the same old vested interests.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Of course we need a Press free from Government. It’s just a shame that we have a Press free from the people as well.

    • blingmun


  • itdoesntaddup

    We already rely on our own version of samizdat – the internet. We have even more to fear from government regulation of that in the form of monitoring all our communications. No longer content with simply monitoring those who are reasonably considered worthy of it – a process that used to be tested by the need for a warrant, in the most invasive cases signed off by the Home Secretary – we have government that wishes to track our every move via internet monitoring, CCTV and ANPR in Soviet fashion.

    There is far more to fear from this than the imposition of restrictions on the dying press.

  • Charlie the Chump

    Vulture is right and now we have a list of Tories with something to hide . .
    Didn’t Spelman just spend her MP’s salary on attempting to muzzle the press over her son? Would she have bothered if she was not a politician?

  • TomTom

    Time to abolish the Libel Laws which seem to be a major constraint on press freedom as they protect only the rich able to pay Geoffrey Bindman or Carter-Ruck but as in the case of the McDonalds Two do nothing for ordinary people like Chris Jefferies. Time to change the balance of Libel Laws so the Defendant does not need to prove his case rather than the Plaintiff…….and to make the party with deeper pockets meet the costs rule.

    State Regulation is far from ideal, but it is the only balance against rich men like Robert Maxwell hiding criminality whilst poorer men like Chris Jefferies can be maligned at will

    • Thick as two Plancks

      As a hypothetical example, then, a student activist could accuse you of wife-beating, or whatever, and you would have to pay the legal fees every time. Is that really a good idea?

    • David Lindsay

      If the current judicially imposed arrangement on
      privacy were enacted into the statute law, but with the burden of proof in
      libel actions placed on the plaintiff, then who could object to that? And why?

      Making the privacy law statutory as the price of
      reversing the burden of proof in libel actions. That would be the deal. The
      corporate media cannot expect their own way all the time. Least of all these

  • Gawain

    Unfortunately, Phillip Schofield has blown the defence of your trade out of the water. Journalism is incapable of policing itself. There are few standards and those that do exist are not enforced by other journalists. In a world where politicians are sent to prison for false expenses claims, the City is being suffocated with “compliance” and every step the populace makes is monitored by CCTV I am afraid you are pissing into a hurricane. If journalism is nothing more than the regurgitation of Twitter feeds and the gospel according to t’internet it probably needs regulating.

    • gelert

      Many more MPs should have been prosecuted for fraud,not a handfull of scapegoats. For most,paying back what they had fiddled was their only punishment. Jacqui Smith can be seen and heard regularly in the media,often pontificating about honesty etc.,while David Laws is back in cabinet. There is no longer any concept of public disgrace in the UK.

      Not only does the USA have the First Amendment that protects free speech,but fraudulent businessmen and politicians do serious time in prison.

    • HooksLaw

      Journalism has been descending into the slough of the lowest common denominator for a number of years. Schofield (and presumably his producer) are a simple litmus test any rational person can apply. As you may have noted, rationality is a commodity in extremely short supply in these comment pages.

    • Hugh

      “Phillip Schofield has blown the defence of your trade out of the water”

      By doing something on a medium that is already publicly regulated through Ofcom?

      • Gawain

        Hugh, Ofcom are not responsible for regulating journalism they are only responsible for broadcasters (other than the BBC).They are also completely toothless. Let’s see what happens. If Schofield is forced to apologise and to resign I stand corrected.

        • Hugh

          No, exactly: Ofcom aren’t responsible for the press; they are responsible for Scofield’s channel. So how does something he did while working under statutory regulation undermine the arguments of the press to be free of it?

          It’s probably also worth noting that Phil is not a journalist. No journalist, as far as I know, has published a list of the names alleged to be paedophiles.

          • Gawain

            Oh dear, you seem to be living in the wrong century and I am afraid you do have rather a shock coming. Ofcom are not responsible for regulating journalism or journalists (or those pretending to be journalists as you claim Schofield is). That is the problem. When journalist negligence starts to cost their employers large amounts in regulatory fines or damage awards it won’t just be the politicians screaming for regulation, your employers will be. That is exactly what happened in banking. Poor training, low standards and an inability to self regulate in the BBC and ITV have now harmed innocent people. It looks to me like poor journalism is killing a free press.

  • Jebediah

    As the Spectator closed the comments section on the Phillip Schofield not issue for “legal reasons” then I think you’ve answered your own question.

  • LB

    Name the MP.

  • Baron

    Amazing, Fraser, how you can argue, almost in the same sentence, your commitment to the freedom of the press and also say that ‘you’ve taken down a blog that was under-the-top’. Anyone not aware of the irony here should be running a whelk stand.

    Quite right your motto is ‘firm but unfair’. Arghhh

    • Fraser Nelson

      Baron, it was a joke – we havent taken down any blog that was under the top. But we wouldn’t post something that was dull.

      • Baron

        Apologies, Fraser, sincerely meant, Baron’s Alzheimer must have kicked in big this morning. He still cannot figure how the motto ‘firm but unfair’ fits into the joke, but then he cannot figure many other things, still lives happily ignorant.

      • Sarah

        “We wouldn’t post something that was dull”

        So much for free expression.

        A prejudice for entertainment (according to the tastes of a tiny elite running our media) pervades the industry. It’s an agenda that has done untold damage to people’s lives, to our society and to our democratic institutions.

        • HooksLaw

          I believe it is actually a crime now to be dull but worthy.

  • Maggie

    21st century journalists abuse freedom of speech to broadcast and print any old tosh based on their political prejudices. Freedom of speech today means freedom to propagate malicious rumours, make unfounded insinuations, spread baseless rumours, pursue personal vendettas and destroy reputations. 21st century journalists cannot be trusted with Freedom of Speech.

    • Julian F

      You’ll be accusing them of spreading “alarm and despondency next”, a la Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act

    • Baron

      Yup, Maggie, the trash is a part of the freedom, too. You get offended, too bad, you suffer damage, take them to court, make them pay till they bleed dry.

      • Maggie

        “….take them to court…”
        Or in other words after a lengthy period of public vilification , if you can afford it, you can get cleared by the courts after the damage has been done?

        • Baron

          Maggie, it’s mostly the case that one or the Crown takes someone to court after a damage is done. Injunctions could differ, but look how misused the tool has become. And by whom? The rich.

          • Sarah

            One of the few people in recent times who has used the super injunction was a BBC journalist.

            Two of the few institutions implicated in widespread coverups in recent times have been the press and the BBC.

    • Sarah

      And arguably one of the more worrying aspects of this is that they persue those vendettas against our elected democratic representatives.
      The press often does more to undermine democratic process than it does to uphold it.

      • Hugh

        “The press often does more to undermine democratic process than it does to uphold it.”

        Could you give me some examples?

        • Sarah


          They drive our elected representatives out of their posts on spurious, self-serving grounds.
          They undermine legal process causing miscarriages of justice.
          They drove a public investigator to suicide.
          They stoke serious public unrest.
          They have been implicated in driving increased violence in war zones and in foreign revolutions to overthrow governments.
          They help to deliver elections to parties.
          They frighten people out of running for public office (particularly women).
          They bribe our officials.
          They encourage a culture of illegal leaking.
          They encourage a culture of political distrust, cynicism and malaise that has a knock-on effect on electoral turnout.

          • Hugh

            Sorry, I was looking for specific examples. I’d also not we already have extensive regulations around reporting court cases, leaking and bribery.

            • Sarah

              They drove Andrew Mitchell out of his job.
              They drove David Kelly to suicide.
              They were guilty of contempt of court in the Joanna Yeates murder trial.
              They were implicated in the London riots.
              If you want an example of the way the press treats females in public office inc. MPs. Just look through the Spectator back catalogue, e.g Steerpike a couple of days ago.
              Bribery of officials, corruption, the effective press coverup of it, please see Leveson enquiry.

              • Colonel Mustard

                I agree with you and another “ill” that you have implied but not specifically catalogued is the unhealthy dialogue between police and press over sub-judice matters. But the cynic in me fears that press regulation would not be used to regulate those sorts of issues but instead to pursue the agendas of the rich and powerful elite.

              • Hugh

                “They drove Andrew Mitchell out of his job” By publishing the fact that he’d called a policeman a “pleb”, and a majority of the public thought he should therefore resign.

                “They drove David Kelly to suicide.” If they did, it was at the behest of the government at the time, which you want to entrust with its regulation.

                “They were guilty of contempt of court in the Joanna Yeates murder trial.” You’re right, we should regulate against that. And we have.

                “They were implicated in the London riots.” I’m not really sure what that means. Are you accusing the press of causing the London riots? In what way?

                “If you want an example of the way the press treats females in public office” No, I’d like an example of how you intend to regulate how the press treats females in public office that won’t have a very serious impact on the freedom of speech. Which Steepike column is it you would like banned exactly?

                “Bribery of officials, corruption, the effective press coverup of it, please see Leveson enquiry” Please see our existing law under which bribery of public officials is already illegal.

                • HooksLaw

                  No evidence at all re Mitchell. A two second spat brought on by a jobsworth police officer.

                  So you admit that these paragons of virtue – the press – bribed police officers?

                  Kelly’s exposure was not at the behest of the govt, it was with the connivance of the press.

                  the govt and parliament can do all manner of things – its the govt FTER ALL, BUT SAHOCK HORROR, PASS A LAW REGULATING THE PRESS AND OOH DEARY ME NO!

                • Hugh

                  Well, there was the police report, and the fact that he never did actually say what he did had called the officer: either way, the public, evidently believed the copper over the MP. I think it was ridiculous and wouldn’t have had him resign, but my view was a minority one, so I struggle to see how the press undermined democracy in that case.

                  I admit they bribed police officers – I never called them paragons of virtue; I believe in a free press because such a thing is not commonly to be found, in the press or in Parliament or among those with wealth and power.

                  Kelly was exposed by the MoD press office confirming his name. Kelly himself seemed to think he’d been “put through the wringer” by his employers, while Alistair Campbell was lobbying to expose him practically form the off. He also did choose to talk to the press – repeatedly (and against the wishes of his employers), presumably in part because he wished to shed some light on the passage to war, which he clearly felt wasn’t terribly kosher.

                  Again, I’m struggling to see the press’s role in this one as one that would have been vastly improved with greater regulation. I can’t really help feeling that investigating the way the government pushed for war and identifying the person said to be claiming it had – in effect – falsified or at least exaggerated the causes are in fact things we would want the press to be doing.

                  I’m not sure what your last paragraph’s point is. My point is that at least half the problems cited for new regulation are already regulated.

              • Fergus Pickering

                If David Kelly was driven to suicide it was probably by members of parliament. Andrew Mitchell was driven from office by members of parliament. ‘implicated in the London riots’? Do you mean the press stirred them up? How? When?

          • Maggie

            a brilliant summing up, Sarah.

          • AnotherDaveB

            I’m currently reading “The New Few” by Ferdinand Mount.

            He attributes the decline in electoral turnout to the centralisation of political power in government and within the political parties.

    • blingmun

      Aren’t we lucky we have the likes of Maggie to decide whether freedom of speech is being used properly.

      I wish she would do the same for democratic elections, you know, work out if democracy is being abused with votes for parties of which Maggie disapproves and then suspend elections until we all learn to think properly.

    • Hugh

      “to broadcast and print any old tosh based on their political prejudices.”

      That’s an abuse of freedom of speech is it?

      “21st century journalists cannot be trusted with Freedom of Speech.”

      Could you refer me to the era of journalists that could be trusted with it please?

    • Curnonsky

      But politicians can?

  • Ctesibius

    Shouldn’t they just passed a law to make it illegal NOT to change the password on a mobile phone’s voicemail?

  • Vulture

    They’re still licking their wounds over the exposure of their mass corruption by the Telegraph in Expensesgate.

    Do we think for a moment that this would ever have seen the light of day if their precious regulatory authority had been up and running by then? Of course not.

    These so-called Tories should hide their heads in shame. The fact that they wrote to the bloody Guardian tells you all you need to know about their agenda.

    The truth is that we are ruled by scum. Well-spoken scum in the Cameron Conservative case, but scum nonetheless.

    • Sarah

      I completely disagree.

      Corruption thrives where there is lack of regulation. The banks being a good example. The press being another.

      • itdoesntaddup

        Corruption thrives where there is an excess of regulation. The banks being a good example.

      • Vulture

        Please don’t be naive, Sarah. The reason these MPs are aerated about regulating the Press is that they have something to hide, and after Exsesgate we know what that something is. The chief campaigners for Press regulation – eg. Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, are celebs annoyed that their sordid little lives had been exposed, and MPs are annoyed because their sordid little cheating scams had been similarly exposed. A few Labour MPs have gone to jail and a few more such as MacShame and Moran and Laws should be in jail; but Tories have got away unscathed – no wonder that they are squealing to the Guardian to clamp down on what’s left of our liberties. Bottom line: I don’t trust MPs and if you do you are a fool.

        • Sarah

          I don’t trust the press. I don’t trust journalists. I don’t trust the media. More than that, I fear them, they are not on our side.

          If you don’t see that, it’s because they control the message.

          PS. Regulation does not = regulation by MPs. This rumour is an insidious slight of hand by the press.

          • EndOfTrolls

            I trust the press when push comes to shove and our freedoms are threatened. I certainly don’t trust politicians, least of all the left who have a long history of suppression and spin.

            • Sarah

              And who is doing the spinning?

          • Fergus Pickering

            Regulated by whom, Sarah? By the government and the establishment. I prefer my journalists to be sleazy and drunk but NOT in the pay of such people.

            • sarah

              No, regulated by an independent regulator. Independent of the government, independent of the press. Nothing is independent of the establishment – particularly the press, seeing as it is the establishment.

              For truly free comment you need to talk to your friends, indoors.

              • Daniel Maris

                You have made naivety into an art form.

          • Daniel Maris

            Regulation by judges would be even worse.

            You don’t trust the press but trust governments? It’s not the media who torture, put people in concentration camps or murder people. But governments do.

        • Maggie

          Why don’t you address the argument instead of resorting to personal abuse?

        • Gus

          If I were one of the 47 I would now be more careful of where I put my dustbins and how I used my mobile phone. Unsubstantiated smears will abound and charges of ‘hypocrite’ will fly. Editors will determine the agenda to suit their personal interests and those of their proprietors.

      • EndOfTrolls

        Too much bank regulation bad. Too little bank regulation bad. Any press regulation very bad.

        • HooksLaw

          The press is regulated. It regulates itself. Why?
          Why should the press not be independently regulated?

          The crass actions of Schofield are a prime example of the nasty ignorant nature of the press/media.

          • Baron

            if anyone suffered from the guy did that anyone should take him to court, argue the case, get a remedy if measurable hurt can be proven.

            Baron would rather have a Schofield here and there than a censored press

            • Hugh

              Scofield is on TV, which is already regulated. Clearly it’s not working. Therefore we must up the ante there and have broadcasts pre-approved by the state regulator in future, presumably.

            • HooksLaw

              You are inventing the concept of ‘censorship’.

      • AnotherDaveB

        The banking industry is not lightly regulated. It is heavily regulated.

        You could argue that the changes in banking regulation brought in by Labour in 1997 resulted in bad regulation.

        • HooksLaw

          Its clear – not least from the LIBOR issue that the banks are not, or were not, heavily regulated.

          • The Wiganer

            Heavy regulation, with zero enforcement.
            The heavy regulation prevents competitition, the zero enforcement gives free rein to those who can tick the respective boxes.

          • AnotherDaveB

            The regulators were aware of the LIBOR issue at the time.



            There are even suggestions that they encouraged it.

            Banks capital reserves were also lowered by regulation. In the UK that was done by an EU Directive. (Basel II)

          • blingmun

            This is a comment that would only be possible from the mouth of someone who has no acquaintance with the banking industry. The regulation is extensive and a massive daily burden on every banking employee and indeed every customer. Phone calls have to be preceded with time sapping recitals of pointless legalese. Adverts and leaflets are soaked in wasted ink with terms and conditions that no one ever reads. Regulators, legal departments, compliance officers and even marketers spend more of their time on this stuff than they would care to admit.

            The funny thing is I can hear the cogs ticking in the minds of the regulation addicts. They’re thinking: but that’s all the wrong kind of regulation. None of that will prevent banking abuses at the level of Sir Fred Goodwin. What’s needed is the right kind of regulation.

            The depressing thing is they still think that next time – somehow, unlike every other time they regulated anything – they’ll get the regulation right and it won’t simply be a waste of everyone’s time and money.

      • Sue

        Corruption thrives when freedom of speech and expression are regulated. Just imagine the expenses scandal not coming to light. Whistleblowers and honest journalists are essential to a democracy even if you don’t agree with every word they say. We have enough laws to protect them if they are innocent, defamation of character, libel. We have enough of a propaganda mouthpiece in the BBC that we are forced to fund!

        • sarah

          Why do people imagine that the press doesn’t currently regulate speech and expression?

          The information you have access to via the press is entirely regulated. But rather than being regulated by accountable, trained, professionals, it’s regulated by a bunch of unaccountable, untrained, unelected, unprincipled Oxford graduates, selected by other Oxford graduates, who wanted to influence without the responsibility of earning the right to.

          • Hugh

            “t’s regulated by a bunch of unaccountable, untrained, unelected,
            unprincipled Oxford graduates, selected by other Oxford graduates, who wanted to influence without the responsibility of earning the right to.”

            How terrible. Now, let’s see who’s running Ofcom shall we? Ed Richards: Elected? No. Accountable? Not really. Trained? Well, he has good experience as a former media policy adviser to Blair. Unprincipled Oxford graduated selected by other Oxford graduates? No, he went to LSE.

      • Baron

        Sarah, the more Baron listens to you the more he’s inclined to think Nietzsche may have got it right when he quipped that woman was God’s second biggest mistake.

        Wake up, one may have free press and either corrupt or honest journalists, but one cannot have the latter without free press, unless they write for the drawer, and what good does that do?

        • HooksLaw

          You have a big hole in your foot .

        • Sarah

          “Nietzsche may have got it right when he quipped that woman was God’s second biggest mistake”

          Man being his first.

          But let’s not forget Nietzsche was a bloke and therefore knew sweet FA about women and God.

    • Heartless etc.,

      As the Hero of the H2B might say – “Regulation, Regulation, Regulation!” – and if he didn’t, then The People’s Commissariat for State Security or the EUSSR Praesidium most certainly will.

    • David Lindsay

      Complete non-story. A moat and a duck house for neither of which one penny was ever paid out, followed by the removal of a Conservative MP who would not bow the knee to Israel, and the (ongoing) attempt by the authorities to suck up to Tories by persecuting fairly obscure Labour figures while letting Coalition ones off the hook. Let’s just say “David Laws”, shall we?

      Nothing to do with politics, which was why it affected the outcome of no more than one seat, Jacqui Smith’s, and even that cannot be proved. Everything, however, to do with hatred of the State, by definition including Parliament, on the part of what was once the New Right, than which nothing could be more un-Tory or more anti-conservative.

    • mike

      And now they r trying to silence the press because of this peadophile scandal which goes deep into the tory party first this false detraction from the guy who was abused then the resignation of head of the bbc. ie:(sacking).the news reports from the bbc and sky are pathetic,they show we dont really have a free press anymore.

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