Our honourable members have been busy denouncing the press in the House of Commons. The debate is still going on, but The Spectator has just had an honourable mention from Jim Dowd who read out our latest leading article (PDF here) to MPs. “The idea that you can trust the press is a strange one,” he starts. Here’s his little outburst:-
“What these people are basically saying is that they are above the law. This parliament, the British public, can say what they like. If it does not meet their approval, they will not abide by it. That is the calibre, that is the type of people we’re dealing with and we cannot trust them to act in the public interest.”
I will return the compliment: Mr Dowd shows the defenders of the free press who they are dealing with. Note how talks as if Parliament and the Public are the same thing (this “les gens, c’est moi” complex is not uncommon amongst those who have been in parliament for a certain length of time). The ‘public interest’ he defines as what he, an MP, wants to do.
His argument offers a classic example of why politicians cannot be trusted to regulate the press: they define “the public interest” in a way that suits them, and punish publications who defy this interest. Claiming to do so in the name of the powerless.
Eric Joyce then butted in (sorry), saying perhaps The Spectator wants to be regulated by Ofcom instead. Even Mr Dowd was able to correct him on that. Here’s his peroration:-
“We face a position where the strong – in the shape of the press barons, media moguls, call them what you like – are demanding that there should not be a law because they know it will curb their power. Not power to observe and comment as they see fit, nobody’s is talking about a commissar… we’re talking about regulating the way in which they conduct themselves. And, more particularly, the way in which they treat the other citizens of these islands. If there is a dispute between the rich and powerful and the weak and powerless, it is a duty of this House to stand up for the latter.”
He seems not to recognise a few fundamental points. First, that newspapers stand up for their readers, who are also “citizens of these islands”. Second, that the “rich and powerful” are the very people whom journalists tend to investigate – a category that very much includes MPs.
Also, he seems not to grasp the idea of conscientious objection – which has long existed in my trade. Most journalists, for example, would go to jail before revealing a source. It doesn’t mean they regard themselves as “above the law”, just that they are prepared to pay the full legal price for not doing what the state demands. A few journalists (like Jeremy Warner at the Daily Telegraph) have demonstrated this principle.
And what of Mr Dowd’s “commissar?” What could anyone fear from press regulation? The answer, quite simply, is that once parliament’s power over the press has been established then it creates a tool which they will use again and again.
Nodding along to Mr Dowd was an MP who called me up recently and asked me to discipline a Spectator writer who had annoyed him on Twitter. Not because he had written anything wrong, simply because he didn’t like a Tweet and considered it offensive. I asked the MP what on earth this had to do with me. The journalist, he responded, holds a position at The Spectator. Did I want to be associated with someone like that?
It was an appalling suggestion, but it underlined what’s at stake. Why on earth did this MP think I’d oblige? Because these guys are limbering up for a post-Leveson world where they call the shots. They’ll have a regulatory tool, they can use it any time they please and we’d better play nicely or they’ll crank it up. This is the danger: that state regulation of the press has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. And that’s why freedom of the press is a right which Britain has cherished since 1695. Our mistake was not to protect these liberties in a constitution, as the Americans did.
Since 1828, The Spectator has been an resolute defender of English liberties and implacably hostile to MPs’ periodic attempts to bring the media into their purview. I am not saying that The Spectator is above above the law. Simply that I, as editor, will take the full consequences – under the law – of our decision not to attend meetings or pay any fines levied by a state regulator.
Jim Dowd probably doesn’t know it, but he is calling for a Britain where an MP can call up for a quiet word in an editor’s ear, complain about a pesky reporter – and be given a satisfactory response. It’s the kind of thing that happens in regimes all over the world already. And The Spectator will play no part in Britain going the same way.