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Sorry, Privy Council – press freedom was never yours to reject

7 October 2013

11:28 PM

7 October 2013

11:28 PM

The Queen need not bother attending Wednesday’s meeting of the Privy Council: the decision over press regulation has already been taken according to BBC Newsnight. And it has leaked. An octet of MPs has decided to reject the newspapers’ attempt to preserve press freedom (or self-regulation) and defer until 30 October  judgment on the politicians’ rival plan for press regulation. Here’s the audio:-

So, if true, what would this mean? I hope: not a lot. Hacked Off is punching the air, but there’s a snag. We don’t need politicians’ permission to have a free press in Britain: it’s a sacred right we have enjoyed for more than three centuries. As Allegra Stratton said on Newsnight, free speech is ‘part of being British’. Nor has the government actually proposed to revoke this right. The tri-party press regulation deal proposed to set up a bizarre, politically-designed  regulator to which newspapers could volunteer to join. I’d hope that no newspaper which values the concept of a free press would submit itself to such a regulator.

What the government is now proposing – and the Privy Council is considering – would be illegal in America where freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment. Now and again, it is argued in Britain that the three-party plan for press regulation is no big deal: why say it’s the end of the free press? Because it would, for the first time, allow politicians to set the parameters under which the press operate. The constitutions of several countries prohibit such a power grab, and the danger is viewed most clearly from abroad. The politicians’ plan would, in the words of the New York Times:

‘chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and internet sites… in reality the proposal would effectively create a system of government regulation of Britain’s vibrant free press. The kind of press regulations proposed by British politicians would be do more harm than good because an unfettered free press is essential to democracy’.

The British press has just proposed the toughest self-regulation in the Western world, with £1 million fines. Its decision to seek a Royal Charter for the new regulator was, in my view, unnecessary. It meant going to this Privy Council which is, of course, political. The newspapers should forget this medieval pantomime and get on with implementing the new, beefed-up system of self-regulation. And pronto.

P.S. The subcommittee considering press regulation is made up of three Lib Dems and three Tories (one of whom was Dominic Grieve, no champion of press freedom). So if it does reject press freedom, as Newsnight predicts, it would not be much of a surprise.

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