A few months ago, The Spectator sought the help of readers in defending press freedom. Theresa May’s government was consulting on whether to press ahead with a draconian new law that would make publications like ours liable for the costs of anyone who wanted to sue us, for whatever reason. The law, a hangover from the Leveson Inquiry, was intended as a way of bullying titles into signing up to Impress, a would-be press regulator bankrolled by the egregious Max Mosley.
The legislation in question – Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act – had been put out to consultation by the Culture Secretary and such things are often a numbers game. The enemies of press freedom – Hacked Off and Tom Watson etc – were getting ready and marshalling plenty of responses to the consultation saying. But newspapers were not doing likewise. It’s not in their nature to beg the Prime Minister for their freedom: they thought (quite rightly) that such freedom is not hers to give. An admirable sentiment, but one that might be ineffective in a consultation exercise that was already accumulating piles of automated responses from Hacked Off.
After a leading article about Section 40 in our Hogmanay edition I was contacted by a Spectator reader who kindly set up a website where readers could respond to the consultation via a website, and in their own terms. You did, in your hundreds, and told the government in fairly plain terms where they could stick their awful plans. The rules of this consultation means that any response, even if it’s a two-word response, has to be logged.
Tory support could not be taken for granted. Indeed, when this was put to the Commons only a handful of Tories could be relied upon to defend press freedom. The roll of honour is depressingly short: Richard Bacon, Christopher Chope, Tracey Crouch, Philip Davies, Richard Drax, Nick de Bois, Andrew Percy, Mark Reckless, John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Andrew Turner, Martin Vickers, Charles Walker and Sarah Wollaston.
And today, in Theresa May’s manifesto, the Prime Minister has pledged to do what David Cameron ought to have done last time: abandon the whole agenda, draw a veil over Leveson and Section 40. We continue to be members of IPSO, perhaps the world’s toughest system of self-regulation.
I would say that’s an end to it, but I doubt that it will be. Newspapers are haemorrhaging readers and power (see below) – never have they been more vulnerable to a political attempt to suborn them. But this particular battle, it seems, has been won. And to those Spectator readers who helped win it: thank you.