Britain’s journalists ought to be asking themselves an unfamiliar question: what is the point of my life? If they have any knowledge of history, they ought to know that they are the custodians of a tradition of press freedom, which began with John Milton and the “Independents” who opposed both Charles I and the Presbyterian theocrats of the 1640s. The point of having freedom is to hang on to it. Although you would never guess that from imbecilic games the British media plays.
Before I go further, I must acknowledge that you only have to say “press freedom” to see sneers appear on the wolfish lips of the media academics, who provide what intellectual backing the movement towards a state-supervised media possess. ‘What does it mean?’ they ask. Freedom to offend, to distort and to harass. Freedom for Murdoch and Rothermere? Freedom for media conglomerates to cut deals with politicians? (They don’t worry about political interference then, do they?)
I agree up to a point. The idea of press freedom, like the idea of every other kind of freedom, is riddled with absurdities and outright hypocrisies. It is very hard to say what it is.
It is very easy, however, to say what it is not.
It is not state supervision. If you have the state involved in a system that will censure and punish writers and publishers for expressing thoughts that are not offences under law – and, trust me, Britain has more than enough criminal and civil law regulating what we can say and write – then you do not have a free press. End of argument.
The political naivety of Britain’s liberals is as shocking as their failure to stick by basic principles. They imagined that once they let the beast of state power out of its cage, it would confine itself to savaging their enemies. If this week hasn’t taught them to heed Saul Bellow’s warning on suppression – ‘that if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining’ – nothing will. My employers at the Guardian and Observer are now under attack by authoritarian forces for doing what journalists should do and investigating the secret state. They accuse us of treason and threatening national security. If they meant what they said, then they would charge us with breaking the Official Secrets Act and put us before an independent judge and jury. They won’t because we have not, as it happened, exposed Britain to danger, and no jury will convict us.
Instead of acknowledging the truth, David Cameron smiles and nods encouragingly when Tory MPs follow through the logic of censorship and say that, if right wing journalists can be punished, left wing journalists should be punished too. It’s sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander time here in London, although in the case of the Britain’s newspapers, the geese have stepped into the oven of their own free will, and begged to be basted
Cameron does not intend that a competent court will deliver the punishment, but hopes that a partisan Parliamentary committee will haul my colleagues before it. This is the Britain Brian Leveson, Brian Cathcart (all those Brians) Evan Harris, Hugh Grant, Tom Watson, the media studies professors and the man who plays Alan Partridge have left us. The “press” is no longer controlled by the rule of law – the only viable system of regulation in the age of Internet, when the power of the Murdochs and Rothermeres is dying, and there is – in case you had not noticed – no such thing as a monolithic Fleet Street.
Instead of bringing in legislation that applies to everyone, and slashing the costs of going to the rich men’s law courts, politicians and celebrities want to censure writing they think damages national security or upsets some interest group without proving their case beyond reasonable doubt. Instead of juries we will have quangoes and committees. Instead of laws, we have ideologies and sensibilities.
To their shame, the right-wing newspapers, which shouted the loudest against Leveson, are forgetting what they once knew about free speech and cheering Cameron on as he attacks the Guardian. It turns out that conservative editors are as politically naïve as liberals are, and just as keen on using the state to punish their opponents. Each side tears into the other and fails to spot that our masters are pouring through the gaps in the defences. One day editors may realise that if press freedom dies in Britain it will have died because they never learned to put aside childish things and get out of the playground.
The path to the kindergarten gates begins by understanding the need for solidarity. No editor should sign up to the Privy Council’s quango – and what an appropriately secretive and medieval body the politicians have chosen to assert their control – for a simple reason. I said at the beginning of this piece that today’s journalists were the “custodians” of press freedom. We do not own it. We merely hold it in trust until we pass it on. It is not ours to relinquish. It most certainly is not ours to relinquish without a fight.
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