The very fact that a Cabinet member has stood up in the House of Commons to make a statement on the future of newspapers suggests there’s something going rather wrong in our democracy. For three centuries, newspapers have not been toys in the political train set. Britain has operated on an unspoken principle of liberty, so firmly embedded in the national DNA that the separation between government and the press did not need spelt out in a constitution.
Today, a medieval group known as the Privy Council (in fact, an octet of politicians) has decided to reject the newspaper industry’s plans for self-regulation in favour of politicians’ plans for press regulation. You can read Maria Miller’s statement here, and listen to it below, but the crux of it is that the newspapers’ bid to save their freedom is not ‘consistent with Government policy’. She says the politicians will now finish off their own charter:
‘All three political parties will work together in the forthcoming days and produce a final draft of the cross-party Charter to place in the Libraries of both Houses on Friday.’
And so the newspapers will be given a new set of marching orders, from their new masters. Ms Miller says that she hopes the newspaper industry can agree to the government’s plans. I sincerely hope they won’t. We should pause to ask just what it is the newspapers are being asked to accept.
- 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).
- 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 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.’
When you consider the principles at stake, it would be hard for any newspaper that expects to survive the next decade to be complicit in whatever the politicians now intend to cook up.
As for The Spectator, our position is perfectly clear: we still won’t sign. We have opposed every attempted political power grab since 1834 and we will have no part in any government-mandated regulator now. Spectator readers would be appalled if we signed up to some kind of regulatory hierarchy which had politicians at the top. They expect us to be holding these guys to account, not dancing to their tune.
David Cameron has got himself in a mess. To his credit, he knows and has spoken about the danger that lurks behind the dangerous idea of statutory regulation. He asked the newspaper industry to come up with a new self-regulation which endorsed Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals. It has done so, to the millimetre, and now stands ready to implement the toughest system of regulation in the free world with £1 million fines. I hope the newspapers now just ignore the medieval pantomime of the Privy Council and get on with setting up the new regulator – bringing this issue to a close.