Press Freedom: The state goes for everyone (and you have no right to be surprised)

17 October 2013

11:26 AM

17 October 2013

11:26 AM

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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Show comments
  • roger

    If the government wanted to promote a free press yet help those wronged by the excesses of a few then they should have no political involvement except a strengthening of the legal system that everybody, regardless of wealth, could use , the laws are there, the police can help enforce the laws .
    Criminal and Civil law can punish and give redress, the politicians just need to help access, not impose themselves in the process. A journalist , detective or photographer in jail or a press baron reaching for his wallet is the answer, not more quangoes.

  • philip walling

    Oh, and the Bar Standards Board is packed with left leaners who believe in every modish lefty nostrum. Just the kind of people who will be stuffed onto the Committee For Public Safety envisaged as the state’s media enforcer.
    No editor or journalist who values his trade should have anything to do with it. If you give up on this you might as well turn off the lights as you leave and lock the door.

  • philip walling

    The Bar gave away its autonomy a few years back by meekly submitting to the jurisdiction of the Bar Council which has turned out to be a right-on enforcer of the state’s diktats.

    Now barristers are being ‘assessed for their competence’ by the judges they appear before and can be referred to the Bar Council (or its acolyte the Bar Standards Board) who have the power to disbar them if a particular judge’s complaint is taken into account.

    Heaven help the flamboyant, the politically incorrect, or the just plain robust advocate who stands up to a judge, or even if the judge just has it in for him.

    That’s where state control of anything gets you.

  • AtMyDeskToday

    I can see where this adventure in attempted state control of news is heading.
    A newspaper declines to sign up to the charter, some low-life sleb takes offence at being outed for whatever they get up to and takes it to court, knowing that the paper is now in law responsible for both sides legal fees. Compliant judges let it go all the way to the Supreme Court, who are equally compliant. In steps the ECHR to state that it’s all in violation of the European Convention. Most people think this judgement is absolutely right.
    Suddenly the ECHR is a good thing, not at all what our leaders wanted. Unforeseen consequences.

  • derekemery

    There is nothing positive for politicians about open government or an open press. This will give them the opportunity to seal down their secrets and incompetence from the public which is what they have wanted for years.
    Making the press an organ of government however will lead to less trust no more. The public will know they are being lied to and that the press are just another organ for lying to us.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well I think Nick if you could take just one step further and say it is not about preventing the media in the UK reporting on the outcome of a police investigation (made public by the authorities) in Portugal you would have my solid agreement.

    But since you choose to ignore the grossest example of media manipulation in recent years I am not sure where you stand.

    The Met Police have now told us that the “sighting” being peddled for the last six years (not by the Portugese Police who long ago discredited it) is a load of nonsense – nothing to do with the alleged “abduction”. But you, NIck, never comment on such matters – even though there has been a sustained campaign of media manipulation which is continuining now. This media manipulation is causing a huge amount of damage to our democracy.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    “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’s not an idea. It’s a profession of faith, albeit a fallacious affectation of the same ;

    ” freedom of the press!” – of course it’s going to end up serving itself. This is because he who pays the piper calls the tune, as we all know,

  • David Prentice

    I’d expect Labour and the BBC to stampede towards state control of the press but the Lib Dems and the Tories? Besides apparently being given carte blanche to molest women and make slimy u-turns on every stated position, what does being a Liberal Democrat actually mean?

    So, British press freedom about to be overseen by a quango…”Dame” “Suzi” Leather and the clueless Jenny Watson must be in a frenzy of anticipation. Troubling and depressing in equal measure.

    • cmp

      What DOES being a Liberal Democrat mean? Now there is an interesting question. Given the roots of the organization (Whig, Liberal, Social Democrat (British variety), one would never expect the stances we see from this lot. Rather I would expect a leaning towards “Freedom of the Individual” not ever increasing State Control. I will continue to dream.

  • RaymondDance

    Bravo nick! Without what’s left of the print media we become the prisoners of the Guardian/BBC axis of evil.

    • David Prentice

      And axis of stupid. For surely both organisations will come to rue what they are now gleefully egging on.

  • george

    no corrupt entity can take being under the spotlight … explains parliament, labour party, unions, councils and hugh grant (convicted felon I believe) all wanting press regulation.

    • roger

      It is the damages awarded and the journalists and officials jailed that keep the press decent, not a Royal Charter.

      • george

        but damages only apply if you libel (or slander) people. If the accusation is true then the spotlight is justified. Just because someone doesnt want their dodgy laundry aired doesnt mean that something like the leveson report can be used to as a get out of jail free card! Thats for the courts to decide, not a bunch of celebs or a political party trying to silence peoples right to free speech.

        I note that while the grauniad is all for controlling the ‘right wing’ press … ie gag people from saying things they dont like, they dont feel the need to follow the laws of the uk themselves.

  • AngelaPhillips

    Dear Nick

    Whatever have you been reading? It certainly isn’t
    the Royal Charter (neither of them in fact) nor is it the Leveson
    Inquiry report, indeed I have to say that you seem to have made it all
    up out of your own fevered imagination. By what possible stretch of the
    imagination does anything on offer do this?

    “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 quangos and committees. Instead of laws,
    we have ideologies and sensibilities.”

    There is
    absolutely nothing in anything on offer that suggests one word of what
    you suggest. Indeed quite the reverse. The state would have no say
    WHATEVER in the complaints system. The sole reason for a charter is to
    ensure that the regulator is completely independent of the state. It may
    be a clunky way of achieving the end but its clunky to keep it away
    from state interference. The whole point is slash the costs of going to
    the rich man’s courts. That is what it is for.

    Good grief – I never mind a good argument but please actually read before you attack.

  • left_wing_ignorance

    In the 17th century the idea took hold in England that the sovereign ruled according to a contract, an unwritten one but fully binding; that freedom rested in the rule of law, and everyone from the king to the lowliest peasant was answerable to it. What I find disturbing about a “royal charter” is that the state is now turning this principle around by saying the people must submit to be ruled according to a contract, rather than them rule according to one. They are turning the tables and circumventing the rule of law to do it

    • MrVeryAngry

      If you want a direct example of that, try running an FS business and have to deal with the Financial Catastrophe Authority.

    • Penfold

      I suspect the dead hand of Europe here.
      Our system is totally different from that on the Continent which is a based on the Code Napoleon. That gives primacy to the state and “allows” the people certain liberties, defined as “rights”. The code was devised by a tyrant to aid his suppression of the people’s of Europe and to ensure the creation and functionality of a ruling elite. There is no Habeas Corpus and the individual is at the mercy of officialdom.

  • David Lindsay

    For all his other gifts and achievements, Milton (I have an MA on him) certainly did not believe in press freedom. Or in freedom generally. He just believed that his lot should be the tyrants.

    • Kennybhoy

      The biggest blowhard in Creation writes:

      “…Milton (I have an MA on him)…”


      • David Lindsay

        It’s a fact. What would you like to know about the theological reasons why he happily used Classical material to retell Old Testament narratives in Paradise Lost, but was far more reticent about doing so to retell NewTestament narratives in Paradise Regained?

        Other postgraduate work has included why the High Churchmen proved so much more reliably Jacobite than the English Catholics, and how the Church in France moved from a three-party system in 1600 to a two-party system in 1700.

        • Wessex Man

          When you’ve written the Book about it Dave be sure to give us a press release, any time around the Christmas/New Year while I’m on holiday half way around the world.

          • David Lindsay

            I have no need of such coarse means of publicity.

            • David Prentice

              David, David…let others speak glowingly of your academic mojo, otherwise you leave gaps in midfield for professional Glaswegians to exploit.

              • David Lindsay

                They do. Very little in this link is by me, it just happens to be on my site –

                Oh, and ignore the nasty comments in the link from this. They are all by a former student of mine, who has mental health problems and who is known to the Police. I am not the only object of his fascination.

                Nick Cohen still knows nothing about Milton, or indeed about the entire period. “Press freedom”! I ask you!

                • Kennybhoy

                  Politician/Academic manque writes:

                  “They do. Very little in this link is by me, it just happens to be on my site – http://davidaslindsay.blogspot

                  Oh, and ignore the nasty comments…”

                  I rest my case m’lud…

              • Kennybhoy

                Professional Glaswegian? I have been called worse! 🙂

          • Kennybhoy

            Does the vanity press sector do press releases?

        • Kennybhoy

          The biggest blowhard in Creation writes:

          “It’s a fact…”

          Are you really this obtuse Young Maister? So lacking in self-awareness? I did ‘nae call you a liar. I called you a blowhard.

          • David Lindsay

            It is a fact that I have an MA on Milton, And that, based on this article, Nick Cohen knows nothing about him. Less than nothing, in fact: not even wrong, and all that.

  • NinePillocksInARoom

    Well, I think what the Guardian did was really very close to the line, although I get your point about nobody being charged with anything – that’s one of the first sensible things that I have heard that contradicts my preexisting view. Still, there’s making the point and there’s releasing documents that really shouldn’t be released. There are good reasons why some things are not publicly available – we can be biased towards transparency but it can’t be absolute.

    In any case, I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the Grauniad, which I guess has had some rather exciting internal disagreements recently. Interesting that Greenwald has now departed the stables. Obviously I’ve no idea whether on good terms or not, but there comes a point when a good clean Iranian-supporter becomes a bit of a burden to a British newspaper …

  • Colin

    It’s all about the expenses.

    The crooks in parliament know full well that literally hundreds of them should’ve been prosecuted. They also know that next time, they probably won’t be so lucky. As a result, they’re only doing what you’d expect someone who’s just dodged a bullet to do – spike the guns of the people taking the pot shots. In this case, the press.

  • VacantPossession

    ‘The political naivety of Britain’s liberals is as shocking as their failure to stick by basic principles’

    I’d like to add to the attack on press freedom the liberal left’s attack on democracy by denying border reform.

    What we are now facing is freedom of speech being buried forever under a socialist consensus which can never be overturned.

    Faux democracy.

    • Colin

      “naivety”, some of them are also Thick and some of them are Evil.

      • ukfred

        Marx, IIRC, had an expression for them. Useful idiots.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Much of this is about revenge by Labour on Rupert Murdoch for the heinous crime of ending his support for it and, especially, Brown.

    • Penfold

      And revenge by corrupt and ethically challenged politicoes for the revelations of the expenses scandal.
      Statist regimes and governments always demand a quiescent press/media.

  • ThePrussian

    Beautiful piece

  • sonyme

    While a number of newspapers used illegal phone hacking, and need holding to account, why has this been extended to a proposed regulation of what is termed ‘the press’, but no further? Notwistanding that mobile service providers have to an extent
    tightened up their systems, phone hacking can be done potentially by anybody. They could then transmit any information either verbally or in writing on a media website, for example. So surely every person in the country over infant age needs to sign the royal charter, as well as the social media websites and other avenues of communicating information. Otherwise, doesn’t the press have a claim for unfair discrimination?

    • VacantPossession

      Or perhaps owners of mobile phones could read the manuals (RTFM) and be responsible for the own (in)actions.

      Where has personal responsibility gone in the assessment of liability? Whiulst the press were undoubtedly cavalier, try asking an insurance company for a payout after a burglary when all the doors & windows are left open as a matter of course.

      What would the insurance company say? Nothing of course as they wouldn’t have insured you in the first place if you’d answered the questions on the form honestly. What would the police say? Something along the lines of ‘what a stupid thing to do’.

      Why then is it different for comedians & politiicians & how have they been alloweed to get away with personal stupidity.

      For goodness sake, if you are a figure in the public light it would make sense to take a few *basic* precautions, like adding a password to your voicemail account.

      FX: Sigh…

      And because of this, they want to regulate/muzzle the entire press and take away one of the few methods by which these numpties can be held to account.

  • Blazeaway

    No newspaper should sign up to the quango. No journalist should give the least house room to Leveson and his fellow enemies of freedom of expression.

    Freedom of speech does not belong to the press. It belongs to all citizens. If the presses are curtailed we are all curtailed. Journalists are in a unique position of responsibility to lead the fight.

    I decided earlier to relinquish my membership of the National Union of Journalists which has let its hatred of – pretty rubbishy – employers colour its judgement. The union’s stance has been a disgrace.

    My subs will go to an organisation that will defend freedom of speech – UKIP.

    • roger

      The people who wanted Levinson wanted it because the legal system failed them, not just the press.
      Freedom of speech, under the law with access for all.

  • global city

    Are the two issues REALLY the same?
    I believe firmly in the right of the likes of the Guardian to lie about things like ‘Global Warming’ or to employ Polly Toynbee, but not to commit treason, just as the issue about ‘Page 3’ would take a different direction if they paraded pictures of topless 9 year olds.

    Crimes and editorial spin are different things.

    • FrenchNewsonlin

      IF any crime has been committed it should be tried and punished in the courts and under the existing law. The issue of press freedom — inextricably lined with individual freedom of expression — is as Nick Cohen so rightly says held in precious trust for each generation. All involved in the media should unite against the abomination of Leveson and the abysmal “selebs” and fellow travellers who gave the report its sustenance and succour. To the bonfire with this million word treatise of shame.

      • global city

        That is the point I was trying to make!

        • FrenchNewsonlin

          Doesn’t hurt to have your point reinforced then!

          • global city

            No, especially when the first attempt is basically unintelligible!

  • sir_graphus

    You’ll be resigning from the Guardian/Observer, then.

    I think the Guardian and the left believe (rightly) that they’ll have more chance of stuffing the body with left-leaners than the right.

    • Andy

      The Left are keen on Press Regulation for the simple reason that the print media are the one area of life they don’t control. They want the print media to reflect their views like the BBC so the whole population is brain washed into their stupid and evil ideology. Well I hope the Press tells the government and Hacked Off to F**k Off.