The Press Will Be Free When You Want It To Be Free

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Mick Hume, above, is the editor-at-large at Spiked, and the author of There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press.

Last week he delivered a speech at the National Newspaper of Ireland Journalism Awards. We asked him for a copy of the speech but he didn’t have one “just had a few notes.” However, he’s kindly written the following from memory:

I have been asked to talk about the theme of my book, in defence of press freedom. Some might wonder if that is really necessary in the 21st century. After all, these days everybody in public life in the UK, Ireland, the US and the West will say that they support freedom of the press. When I debated these matters in London with His Holiness Hugh Grant, patron saint of statutory regulation, even he insisted that he supported a free press “in an ideal world”. Who exactly would want to live in Hugh Grant’s ideal world is another matter.

But the idea that everybody supports the principle of press freedom is one of the great lies and delusions of the age. In reality, press freedom is distinctly out of fashion in political and intellectual circles. The mantra of today is “I believe in a free press BUT…”. Then they go on to explain how they don’t really believe in freedom of expression at all – or at least, only for those views of which they approve. “I believe in a free press BUT…” And the “Buts” are getting bigger.

This is why, as journalists and writers, I think it is high time we started speaking up more vociferously for the freedom of the press, with no buts. Press freedom is not some woolly but impossible ideal, like Free Love, to be “butted” into submission by practicalities. Freedom of expression and of the press is the lifeblood of any free and civilised society.

And we need to defend it as an indivisible liberty. You cannot say you abolish slavery, but only for white people and Christians. You cannot say you defend press freedom, but only for the “respectable”, highbrow publications and not those “vulgar” tabloids.

These are ideas that have largely been lost sight of in Western debate, where the emphasis today is on depicting the press as a problem, as something has been “too free” and needs to be reined in somehow.

Look at our experience in the UK. For two and a half years now, since the phone-hacking scandal exploded, the British press has been on trial. The Leveson Inquiry was really a showtrial, since the popular press had been found guilty before proceedings began, and all that remained to be decided was the sentence.

Now the politicians are trying to impose a system of press regulation using the ancient anti-democratic instruments of the Royal Charter, the Crown prerogative and Her Majesty’s Honourable Privy Council. It smacks of the seventeenth century – the first attempt at state-backed regulation since the despotic system of Crown licensing of the press ended in 1695.

In the old days King Charles II had an official censor called Roger L’Estrange, who hated new fangled newspapers because they told the “Multitude” what their “Superiors” were up to, and gave the masses “an itch…to be meddling with the government”. To put a stop to such wickedness, L’Estrange published government-approved newspapers and stamped on those who sought to publish freely. As late as 1663, a printer was hanged, drawn and quartered for daring to infringe the Crown monopoly. (That was not, of course, the end of British state interference in the Irish press. As late as 1848, the publisher of the rebellious United Irishmen newspaper was sent, not to the Tower, but to Tasmania.)

Exactly 350 years after the brutal execution of that printer, today’s more civilised British rulers still share that fear and loathing of “the Multitude” and insolent publications. The difference is that they wish to use the ancient instruments of the Royal Charter, Crown Prerogative and Privy Council only to have the popular press neutered and lobotomised, rather than put to death.

The spirit of the moment was summed up by an Old Bailey judge last week, at the start of the trial of two former editors of the News of the World. M’lud told the jury not to look at the latest issue of the satirical magazine Private Eye, because its front cover was a joke involving one the accused, Rebekah Brooks, which was “in exceedingly bad taste”. That is what all of this has been about. The phone-hacking scandal, which nobody wants or needs to defend, has been used as a pretext for a wider purge of that which the elites deem to be “in exceptionally bad taste” in the popular press. We should remember that the Leveson Inquiry was not into phone-hacking at all, but was set up to probe the far wider “culture, practice and ethics” of the press. It was an exercise in what I call Ethical Cleansing.

Now Maria Miller, the Tory culture and media secretary, has given the game away. (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of her, nobody in the UK knows who she is either.) The major newspaper groups have come up with their own alternative proposals for a tough system of regulation – proposals which, some of us think, make far too many concessions to the enemies of press freedom. But culture secretary Miller dismissed these proposals because, she declared, they were “unable to comply with fundamental Leveson principles and government policy”. To which the considered response should have been: So what? Since when was it the responsibility of a free press to comply with the whims of judges such as Lord Justice Leveson or government ministers? The responsibility of a free press is to publish and be damned, without asking permission.

The only “fundamental principle” that matters here is freedom of expression and of the press. Of course, the exercise of freedom is a messy business, and those high principles can be exploited for low ends. Any media outlet is capable of getting carried away with itself, be it the News of the World, the Irish Daily Star or the BBC’s flagship Newsnight. That cannot be an excuse for allowing the authorities to trample on our precious liberties.

The politicians, highbrow media, Hacked Off and the rest of the Leveson lobby like to promote an image of the ideal journalist as an ethically-minded, law-abiding crusader and role model interested only in pursuing the Public Interest. They must be suffering from either ignorance or historical amnesia. The truth is that there would never have been a free press in these islands unless journalists and editors were prepared to break the rules, stir up trouble and offend the conventional standards of their time.

To mention just two of my trouble-making heroes from the historic struggle for press freedom in Britain, neither of whom would exactly have fitted today’s narrow notion of the ethical journalist.

One is John Wilkes, an 18th century MP, Lord Mayor of London, and early journalist and publisher central to the fight for greater democracy and press freedom. Wilkes was also considered a scoundrel – a rogue, womanising rake, drinker and gambler. His publications that became causes celebre in the fight for press freedom ranged from low scandal-mongering to upper class pornography. Wilkes’ newspaper, The North Briton, ran frequent stories suggesting that the prime minister was fornicating with the queen’s mother. It is hard to imagine our much-maligned tabloids today claiming that David Cameron is “romping” with senior royals. Wilkes boasted that he could take an ounce of truth and mix it up with a tone of falsehood so that no chemist could separate them. What might Lord Justice Leveson have made of that?

For these crimes Wilkes was found guilty of seditious libel and blasphemous libel, sent to the Tower, jailed, outlawed and exiled and barred from parliament. Yet he remained a popular hero. When he was sent to prison his supporters rioted for days through the streets of London, and the popular cry was “Wilkes and Liberty!”. When his allies were sent to the Tower of London by MPs, 50 000 Londoners besieged parliament, smashed up the prime minister’s coach, cut up his hat, and only just refrained from hanging him from the nearest tree. Wilkes was a hero, unethical warts and all.

The other hero I want to mention is WT Stead, the 19th century pioneer of what might now be called tabloid-style journalism. Stead helped to invent that combination of moral indignation and prurient voyeurism we may be familiar with today. His biggest scoop came in 1885, when his Pall Mall Gazette ran a series of sensationalist articles on child prostitution in London under the title “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” (we can be thankful the tabloid headline-writers have since honed their skills). The slightly snappier sub-titles included “Virgins violated”, “Confessions of a brothel keeper” and, most scandalously of all “Girl of 13 bought for £5”.

How did Stead know a girl had been bought for £5? Because he bought her! He posed as a procurer and apparently paid an alcoholic mother a fiver for her teenage daughter. Never mind a “Fake Sheikh” – WT Stead played the part of a Fake Paedo. For this he was personally prosecuted by the Attorney General and sentenced to jail. But his outrageous campaign prompted MPs to pass new laws on child prostitution and raise the age of consent to 16.

Even in more modern times it is important to recognise that no great story, up to and including the Watergate scandal, could have been broken unless journalists and editors were first prepared to break the rules and even the law.

But of course, most media stories that cause outrage and offence are not worthy Watergate-style exposes. This is the thing about a free press that some find hardest to accept: that it has to be free. That means it does not have to comply with what I, you or anybody else thinks it ought to be like. Nobody needs to pass an ethical test in order to enjoy freedom of expression. Freedom of the press is not a gift, to be handed down by the powerful like charity, only to those deemed deserving. As George Orwell put it, in his 1945 essay Freedom of the Press, “if liberty means anything at all it must mean the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. That essay, incidentally, was written as a preface to Animal Farm. The publisher refused to publish it!

Mention of Orwell usually gets people talking about an “Orwellian nightmare”. But there is no need for scaremongering about Britain becoming “Another North Korea” with state control of the media. Of course the UK is not about to become like Zimbabwe. Big deal. The fact that we don’t live in North Korea is hardly anything to celebrate. Not living in North Korea is not good enough. We should insist that the press is already neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator starts policing it.

And as it happens, many despots around the world do look enviously at the UK’s libel laws, and come to London to sue their enemies. I have personal experience of being on the wrong end of those execrable laws, which assume you are guilty and under which the truth is no defence. Autocratic regimes might also look on admiringly at a situation where at least 61 British journalists have now been arrested, in the biggest investigation in British police history, with barely a peep of protest from our supposed civil liberties lobby. Well, they are only tabloid hacks of course, so apparently they don’t really county…

What is the future for press regulation in the West? Some in the UK would now like to import the Irish system of an independent press ombudsman and press council. It certainly looks more liberal than any system that is on the table in Britain today. And there would be an appealing irony is seeing Ireland give a moral lesson to the Brits, after centuries of imperial sermonising in the other direction.

But in the end, I’d say no thanks. I do not want to see the press overseen by an ombudsman, even one as good and gracious as Professor John Horgan, with whom I have just been enjoying lunch. It is nothing personal, strictly institutional (although you never know who might succeed him, do you?).

I note that Ireland’s press council puts great emphasis on the role of its “public interest members”. But that raises the key question: who is to decide what is in the public interest? One constant from the UK to Ireland seems to be that, whether defining the “public interest” is left to judges or other appointed members of the great and good, the public does not get to decide for itself what its interests might be.

If we are searching for an international model, I would rather look further afield. In one London debate about Leveson and all that, a professor of journalism – on of the new class of “hackademics”, journalists turned lecturers who are also mostly poachers turned gamekeepers – told me the idea of an unregulated press was “other-planetary”.

I asked if he was referring to that other planet, the United States of America. In the US there is no press regulation, and the notion of a judge-led Inquiry or an ombudsman would be laughed out of court. Instead they have the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids Congress to pass any law infringing on freedom of speech or of the press. They have the 45 words of the First Amendment enshrining press freedom – we have the one million words of the Leveson Report demanding statutory-backed regulation.

When I was over there recently, in the midst of the US government shutdown, one New York tabloid used that freedom to brand Congress as a “House of Turds”. It brought to mind that excellent Irish headline about “Useless Gobshites”. No doubt many in high places consider this sort of thing to be “in exceptionally bad taste”. Give me that sort of bad taste anyday rather than the sanitised, conformist press the regulators want. We should defend the freedom of the press to be an unruly, trouble-making mess.

On last thing. In the past the loudest “Buts…” attached to press freedom tended to come from reactionary voices, while those who favoured social change and progress championed freedom of expression.

Now, by contrast, it is often seem as liberal, progressive and even radical to demand more regulation of the press, especially the tabloid, popular press. As an old libertarian Marxist, it infuriates me to see how state interference in the press is now seen as a cause of the Left.

Instead of that illiberal liberalism, I would like to see a revival of the spirit of my old friend Karl Marx. Some 170 years ago, the first thing Marx published in his German newspaper was a series of essays in defence of press freedom against the Prussian state censors. To those who said they supported freedom only for respectable and moderate publications, Marx pointed out that “you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences”, concluding with poetic panache that “You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!”

That is a price worth paying for a free press, with no buts. There is always one thing worse than a free press – and that is its opposite.

Mick Hume, November, 2013.

Pic: The Sun

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