Here is a safe prediction: whatever the Leveson report recommends for British journalism, there will be an awful lot of duff arguments rolled out. Despite much of the debate being couched in how important it is for the press to tell the truth and how many difficult judgements there are to make, we’ll hear plenty of simplistic rhetoric based on shonky factual foundations.
That’s a shame, because the sight of large numbers of people proclaiming the former whilst doing the latter may make for great satirical black humour but it debases an important debate.
So here’s my contribution to some cloud-clearing ahead of the controversies.
“Britain’s press has been free since the 17th century and we must not risk it”
Could I introduce you to some of the exceptionally brave and resourceful journalists and editors of the 18th and 19th centuries? The idea that there was some wonderful ideal of press freedom secured centuries ago and preciously preserved since then is nonsense.
Press freedom has been a much longer battle, and one which in fact shows how risky it is to take the state of the press at any one moment in time and declare that its current state is the most perfect attainable and one to be preserved against all changes.
You do not have to go back very far in the press to see racism and homophobia widespread, let alone as you go further back to savour religious bigotry being the norm. There was a golden age where papers made plenty of money, journalists could work short hours before going to the pub and newspapers sold in their millions. But that is to confuse a golden age for journalists with a golden age for journalism.
Neither politicians nor journalists, for example, like to remind us how many newspapers used to be funded by direct grants from politicians. A media owner meeting the Prime Minister a few times is nothing compared to politicians handing over large slugs of cash direct to favoured newspaper titles.
So if you want to draw lessons from the past draw remember that never before has the press been in such a perfect state that changes have not been able to improve it. Not touching the press over the last four hundred years would have made things far worse. Good thing many people were repeatedly smarter than that.
If you think today is the final break in the pattern and things must not be touched, make the case for that – but don’t rely on dodgy historical claims which involve ignoring much of what has happened in the last four hundred years.
“Statutory regulation of the press would be an appalling departure from the past”
The idea that there is no legal framework controlling what the press can and cannot do at the moment would be news to the newspaper lawyers who regularly have to work out what is and isn’t legal to do.
News too to those who have successfully taken legal action against the press, not to mention the judges who have presided over such cases.
News also to anyone who remembers seeing coverage of the successful prosecution of several newspapers for contempt of court for their coverage.
The reality is that there are plenty of laws that regulate the press – and rightly so. Perhaps there will be something specifically wrong about what Leveson recommends which makes it bad.
But if you really believe that having politicians able to make laws that influences what the press can say is truly awful in principle and should never be done, have the courage of your convictions and start up with a long list of repeals that you believe in, starting with a blanket exemption from libel law and an complete opt-out from the contempt of court rules.
“It’s a slippery slope to [insert appropriate dictatorship]”
See above. Legislation and newspapers ain’t anything new. If it’s a slippery slope, it’s one we’ve been on since the first newspaper was printed. A slippery slope lasting several hundred years and with newspapers ending up gaining more, not less, freedom as we’ve moved along it is pointing in the wrong direction, not very slippery and useless as a sensible debating point.
“You can’t define what is a newspaper in the modern, internet world”
The newspaper industry is quite happy with the definition of itself when it comes to banking the preferential treatment it gets for VAT. Remind me the last time the newspaper industry said that tax break was impossible to have any more?
“We don’t need regulation as all the problems have been about rogue elements in the media breaking the law. We just need the police to do their job”
We’re surrounded with examples of industries where law breaking has taken place on a widespread and repeated scale and as a result regulation of that industry has been changed and (usually) improved.
In fact, it has often been the newspapers at the frontline of the charge demanding that some other industry is better and tighter regulated, not simply that the police visit its offices more often.
Perhaps in this case there’s a reason to believe that law-breaking has been banished, but if so the case needs to be made, not just assumed as inevitable.
“Liberals should never contemplate something that restricts the freedom of the press”
When Mill gave his example of someone shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre, he was doing just that – giving an example, not making a specific point about who should be able to vocalise health and safety information in places of public entertainment.
That’s why liberals do not object in principle to libel laws; far from it, liberals want effective libel laws. And therein lies the other issue for liberal when judging the press – not only freedom of speech but also the balance of power between individuals and concentrations of it.
It’s liberal to be concerned about concentrations of power and it’s liberal to want rules that given the individual a fair chance to stand up to such concentrations of power.
“Newspapers are the same as the media”
Of course no-one is so foolish as to say this explicitly. However, look carefully at some of the claims that doing this or that would spell the end of press freedom and you realise what they really mean is ‘applying a rule that applies to TV and radio news to newspaper would spell the end of all media freedom’.
Not all TV and radio rules are sensible to apply to the newspapers by any means, but the idea that they’ve killed off freedom of the press on TV and radio is nonsense.
Does all this mean Leveson will be right? Of course not. Whether or not Leveson is right depends on what he has to say. But it does mean at least that a good number of his critics will be wrong.