Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012

So far I’ve had chance only to skim the summaries of the Leveson Report. But from what I’ve read I find myself agreeing far more with David Cameron’s measured response than with Nick Clegg’s.

Two principles are crucial to me in framing my thinking on this issue:

1) The state should not have power over the press.

2) The press should not have power over individual citizens.

You could call those two principles a level playing field approach. Or even more simply: equality.

Nick Clegg didn’t speak for me today. It is not only a question of Leveson being practical and proportionate. It matters to me whether the proposals are also liberal. I’d hope that might be an important consideration for a liberal politician too.

Fortunately Index on Censorship did speak for me:

Index on Censorship opposes recommendations for the statutory underpinning of press regulation

Index urges that there is a serious, considered debate about Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. The free speech organisation opposes the statutory underpinning of press regulation proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship said:

“We consider that the statutory-voluntary approach to independent press regulation would undermine press freedom in the UK. However, we support the proposal for cheap, effective arbitration, which would help victims get swift redress to their complaints.”

I am, it seems, in a minority of Lib Dems – at least vocal ones – who worry about state regulation of a free press. Too many are comforting themselves with the word ‘independent’. As Index says:

Statutory underpinning of an ‘independent’ and ‘voluntary’ regulator is a contradiction in terms. Any law which sets out the criteria that the press must meet, by definition introduces some government or political control of the media. Politicians of all hues have an interest in getting the most positive media coverage they can. Keeping print media independent of government so journalists can report on political debate and decision-making, robustly and without fear, is fundamental. Even “light” statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

It’s a depressing irony that Lib Dems – so quick to mount the liberal barricades when it comes to secret courts or the internet snoopers’ charter – desert them the moment the free speech of a group few of us like is threatened. Hatred of Murdoch and the Mail trumps fundamental liberal tenets.

Nor is it good enough for Lib Dems simply to say we owe it to the victims of phone hacking to regulate the press. First, not all the  victims agree with state regulation. And secondly, since when did we believe victims should set the terms of punishment? Are we going to extend that principle to all other criminal activity, too? We have due process and an independent judiciary for a reason, and it’s what marks out a civilised society.

I’ll end on a positive note. Leveson’s proposal for an arbitration service to enable swift, affordable redress for individuals wronged by the press is welcome. Just the kind of playing field levelling liberals should welcome.