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Coffee House

The Spectator’s two-letter response to politicians’ plans for licensing the press

11 October 2013

5:24 PM

11 October 2013

5:24 PM

What part of ‘no’ don’t they understand? Our politicians have proudly unveiled their new plan to license the press, as if this was is in their power to do so. In fact, the press in Britain has been free from political interference for generations. The British government simply does not have the power to regulate the press, so it’s not clear why ministers have wasted their time acting as if this is their problem to solve.

The mechanics of the new charter released today are not the issue. What the politicians propose is a near-duplication of the regulation which the press has already  to set up: the £1 million fines, the toughest system in the Western world. The press has already agreed to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals, to the millimetre.

The argument now is about whether the politicians should be allowed to impose regulation on the press for the first time in 300 years – or whether they should whistle Dixie instead. We at The Spectator are in the latter camp.

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And it’s not just about the UK press.Free speech groups world over are asking the newspapers not to sign up to government regulation because if the notion of a fully-independent press dies in Britain it sets a dangerous precedent for countries where governments would like a similar power grab.

To recap, here’s what’s at stake.

  • The politicians’ charter* implements a plan which does not ‘consider the signal that the creation of such a draconian regime would — if implemented — send to the rest of the world.’ So says the the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations.
  • The politicians’ charter would set a template that could be imitated in other countries still fighting for press freedom. Phenyo Butale, of the South African Freedom of Expression Institute, puts it thus: ‘African governments have shown they are uncomfortable with free press acting as a watchdog, holding them to account. A move to statutory regulation in the UK would really be a gift for them.’
  • The politicians’ charter is a deeply illiberal, internationally-condemned plan that would be illegal in several countries, including America (where it would violate First Amendment protections).
  • This is what the politicians’ first draft prompted from the New York Times: ‘Britain’s three main political parties this week agreed to impose unwieldy regulations on the news media that would chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and internet sites.’
  • The politicians’ charter would bring in statutory regulation, which is a ‘hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy’. Not my words, but those of a parliamentary committee just seven years ago.

The newspapers ought to thank David Cameron for his efforts, and have some sympathy  – you can see how he has ended up boxed into a political corner. He had to get consensus, so ended up drifting very far from his original plan to defend liberty. But to go back to his earlier proposal: yes, the newspapers have actually come up with Leveson-compliant legislation. They can now introduce it, the politicians can back off, and we can all keep the flame of press freedom burning a little longer.

* An MP gets in touch to say it’s not fair to call it a politicians’ charter, as this stitch-up was agreed without consulting most politicians and will not be put to a vote. So a deal between the leadership of the three Westminster parties.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


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