On freedom of the press

We were all suitably appalled by the phone hacking scandal at The News of the World, and the other media misdemeanours which came out in the investigation that followed in its wake. But were we really surprised? Shock horror – red tops do bad things. Knock me down with a feather.

I am, however, deeply concerned by the result of that enquiry. Lord Justice Leveson, the judge who conducted the investigation, published his findings and recommendations on how to improve media ethics in November last year. He found, predictably, that the voluntary, editor-led Press Complaints Commission did not have enough power or independence and needed to be replaced with a body with a few more teeth. Members of the new body would sign a code of practise and would be fined as and when they broke it. Membership should, he argued, be voluntary. All seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then came the spanner in the works. Leveson decided that, in order to account for the media organisations who did not sign up to his revamped commission and those willing to pay fines over and over again, there needed to be a ‘legal backstop’. Here, I stopped nodding along.

Britain is a democracy. Britain is a (relatively) open, law-abiding and fair sort of place. And yet, since November, we have seen our political parties squabbling over state regulation. Freedom of the press – a right to be venerated – is being questioned in a bid to score some electoral points. I am more appalled by this than I was by anything the enquiry uncovered.

On Monday the Liberal Democrats and Labour will table a motion in the Commons calling for Leveson’s recommendations to be enacted. In full. If enough annoyed Tories defy the party whip, that’s it. Bam – state regulation of the press. It’ll be a sad day.

I don’t think I have ever been in such firm, unquestioning agreement with Cameron while being so viscerally disappointed in Clegg. How can a party with the word ‘liberal’ in its name – indeed, which can trace its history back to the reforming masterminds of Gladstone and Lloyd George – support such a measure? It is populism, and it is wrong.

I do not write this as a journalist fighting in my own self-interest – nor even as someone who is obsessed with political debate. History and current affairs will show you what can go wrong when the press is stifled – look at pre-revolutionary France or modern Egypt – but you need not look that far. Ask yourself two questions: does common sense allow it? And is it right? The answers are all you need to know.

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