David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, has has his private life in the newspapers often enough to yearn, Hugh Grant-style, for a world where the press is not free but obliged to operate within parameters outlined by the government. But I’ve interviewed him for Radio Four’s Week in Westminster (it airs at 11am this morning) ahead of next week’s Leveson report and he has come out against the idea state-mandated regulation.
It was an unusual discussion: the supposedly illiberal Blunkett, himself a compensated victim of hacking was defending press freedom. A Tory, Nadhim Zahawi, was urging David Cameron to act.
As a former Home Secretary, Blunkett’s words carry some weight. He wants change, mainly a stronger Press Complaints Commission
‘I think we all want a complete transformation of what currently is the PCC so that it actually does have teeth so it can provide redress. I would like it not just to mediate but to able to make a judgment where the particular journal publication won’t play ball, and I’d like proper compensation. I think we’ve got a long way to go on the back of next week’s announcement in persuading the media, the print media, to go along with something much tougher than is on the table.
But the 42 Tory MPs demanding that government acts now are being too hasty, he says. If the press was to propose a bigger, toothier self-regulatory watchdog then “we don’t need statutory underpinning or requirements, and if we don’t we’re in a different ball game.”
Blunkett echoed Boris Johnson’s message at the Spectator parliamentary awards on Wednesday: what is supposed to be a serious discussion about press ethics and freedoms has descended into a sectarian war.
I don’t think we should be in two camps. There is a terrible problem at the moment with some of the print media having a go at people who don’t agree with them and there’s a similar problem on the other side if you’re not in favour of statutory regulation you’re somehow a patsy of the media – well I’m neither. As you rightly say I’ve suffered myself; but that doesn’t mean retrospectively going over history I should want to change the terms on which we have a free press… We’ve got to use all the powers at our disposal not look immediately at legislation to do it.’
Blunkett, who now advises News International on social responsibility, finished by pointing out that newspapers are anyway seem in terminal decline – and that Lord Leveson may end up proposing a solution to an historical problem. He didn’t give figures, but CoffeeHousers may be interested in ones I found this week
In 1981 some 72pc of the public took a national daily paper. It’s now just 38pc. If current rates of decline continue, the last issue of the Guardian will be sold in February 2020, the last Daily Express will come out in May 2019, the last printed FT in July 2018 and the Independent will fell its last tree in April 2014.
Zahawi said he wanted politicians and the press to work together.To me, this is an deeply worrying sentiment: journalists should not “work with” those whom they are trying to hold to account. The idea of the press working in tandem with the government is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime and, as I said to Zahawi, should send shivers down the spines of free men. The press in Britain has behaved so appallingly that this point has been lost.
Now, Zahawi is not a illiberal MP, I just suspect he hasn’t thought this through enough. But this is the danger: that Britain may be weeks away by joining the ranks of countries where the government tells the press what it can do.
Jeremy Paxman famously said he went into journalism after hearing that the relationship between a journalist and a politician was akin to that of a dog and a lamppost. Several MPs now want to replace this with a principle whereby MPs define the parameters under which the press operates – and “work together”. It is a hideous idea that must be resisted. The last time this happened was under the Licensing Order of 1643, which was allowed to expire in 1695 after the introduction of the 1688 Bill of Rights shortly after the Glorious Revolution. As I wrote in my Daily Telegraph column yesterday, it’s amazing that so many Tory MPs should want to turn the clock back 300 years.
PS Charles Moore has an excellent piece on Leveson and the surrounding debate in the Daily Telegraph today.