The parliamentary majority for keeping a free press in Britain fell to just nine votes this evening. The attempt to bring back another Leveson Report to harass the press was defeated by a dangerously thin margin. Quite something, given that the ideas under discussion would not have looked out of place in Orban’s Hungary.
The point of another Leveson Inquiry would have been to harass newspapers in general and Rupert Murdoch’s titles (and staff) in particular. The other amendment was on the cards was even worse: forcing newspapers to pay the legal bills of anyone who wanted to sue them, whether or not they were in the wrong. This is an extraordinary proposal for any democracy. In any other context it would be seen as an act of simple persecution: choose a victim, then deprive them of basic legal rights. It’s the behaviour associated with autocracies, and to have the House of Commons even consider it is a sign of how many MPs either don’t understand what they are voting for or don’t value the liberties they’re supposed to protect. The only way newspapers would have escaped, under this proposal, is if they agreed to be fall in line behind a state-mandated regulator: in this case Impress, bankrolled by the notorious Max Mosley.
Ed Miliband was in the Commons earlier speaking with much excitement about the need for his party to continue his crusade against the press, in perhaps his most embarrassing performance since miming to an A-Ha video. In most parliaments, such explosions are normally reserved to those defending liberty: Miliband is passionate about ending Britain’s 300-year old tradition of press freedom. How did Britain, a country that invented the notion of press freedom, end up with Orban-style campaigns against it?
Certain figures in parliament – the Mosley-sponsored Tom Watson, for example – are pursuing their own vendetta and indulging their own Murdoch obsessions. And somehow, they have managed to drag hundreds of their colleagues along with them in the pretence that a national principle is at stake. It’s striking how many MPs can be so easily led on such issues. It wasn’t so long ago that every Tory MP voted for David Cameron’s plan to set up state regulation – aside from a 15 rebels, who refused on principle. They were collectively named The Spectator’s Parliamentarians of the Year.
Today’s second amendment – forcing newspapers to pay legal costs even when wrongfully sued – was dropped after the SNP decided not to go along with it. An encouraging development. Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon worked out that she was being dragged into a Tom Watson/Ed Miliband fixation and would end up passing a law that would crush local newspapers and kill off much investigatory journalism. Let’s hope more Labour MPs come to the same conclusion. Most care deeply about basic British liberty and the importance of a free press. The enemies of the free press will be back, trying to insert another amendment into other legislation and this vote will take place again. It will be a test of support for a basic British liberty. Let’s hope more Labour MPs are prepared to stand up and be counted.