We are realising too late that the state supports a free press like the rope supports a hanging man

The judge told the jury in the trial of two former News of the World editors for alleged phone-hacking that “The defendants are on trial but British justice is also on trial”.

Mr Justice Saunders warned jurors not to look at Private Eye, because its front cover features ‘”a joke in exceptionally bad taste” involving Rebekah Brooks. Police even tried to have copies of the Eye removed from sale outside a tube station near the Old Bailey.

At Buckingham Palace, meanwhile, Her Majesty’s Honourable Privy Council – a private cabal of Government ministers – rubber-stamped the plan to underpin a new press regulator with a Royal Charter and statute. The Queen then sealed the deal cooked up by the Government and Opposition over 2am pizza with Hacked Off. Thus was 300 years of history ended, not with bang but a wave of the royal hand, as politicians seek to impose the first system of state-backed regulation since Crown licensing of the press lapsed in 1695.

The defendants and British justice might now be on trial at the Old Bailey. But it is British journalism that has been on trial for more than two years, since the phone-hacking scandal exploded, the News of the World was closed, and the Government  set up the Leveson Inquiry into the entire “culture, ethics and practices” of the UK press.

That inquiry was effectively a showtrial, in which the tabloid newspapers were found guilty before proceedings even began and the phone-hacking scandal was used as a pretext to try to purge the popular press of everything that the great and good deem ‘”exceptionally bad taste”. 

Leveson having sentenced the press to be restrained by a system of statute-backed regulation, the politicians have now tried to execute that sentence via the Privy Council. Bizarrely, a Government spokesman claimed that “A Royal Charter will protect freedom of the press whilst offering real redress when mistakes are made. Importantly, it is the best way of resisting full statutory regulation that others have tried to impose”.

Nobody has publicly demanded “‘full statutory regulation” – that is, state control of the press (not yet, anyway). But the notion that an ‘independent’ regulator backed by Royal Charter is a more liberal option than one backed by statute, as proposed by Leveson and Labour, distorts the truth further than any tabloid hack would dare. If anything, such a measure could be even worse than legislation.

A Royal Charter imposed by Crown prerogative and overseen by the Privy Council smacks of the autocratic Middle Ages, when democracy was a dirty word. And it will be backed by statute anyway, with new laws to give the courts power to impose ‘exemplary’ damages and costs on publications which refuse to sign up to the ‘voluntary’ system.

Crown licensing of the press was designed to stop the masses reading about matters which the King and his council disapproved. Charles II’s official censor, Roger L’Estrange (pictured above), hated new-fangled newspapers that made “the multitude too familiar with the actions and counsels of their superiors” and gave them ‘an itch…to be meddling with government’. L’Estrange published two government-approved newspapers. As late as 1663 a printer who defied the Crown monopoly was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Exactly 350 years later, our more civilised politicians still share that fear and loathing of “the multitude” and an insolent popular press. They want to use the ancient powers of the Privy Council, Crown prerogative and Royal Charter merely to have the popular press lobotomised, rather than put to death. 

What the immediate practical effect of all these constitutional shenanigans will be remains to be seen. On one side the politicians have endorsed a royal charter to underpin a new independent press regulator. On the other side, major newspaper publishers have published detailed plans for their own independent regulator which, they say, will not sign up to the politicians’ charter. Amid this organised chaos, all that seems clear at the moment is that the big winners will be the lawyers.

But the final details of the regulation system are not the most important thing. What matters more is that the press has been found guilty of running amok, and the need to restrain it has been accepted. Even the newspaper groups’ proposed regulator, whilst rejecting the principle of state interference, swallows many of the “Leveson principles”, up to and including possible million pound fines for miscreant publishers.

Yet the ‘Leveson principles’ are part of the problem, not the solution. They are based on the myth that the British press has been too free, and needs to be tamed. From the moment that the Leveson Inquiry was announced by David Cameron in July 2011, it was clear that the outcome would be a disaster for press freedom. It is a pity so many naively went along with the inquisition, apparently only realising too late that the state will “support” a free press as a rope supports a hanging man.

The UK press was already neither free nor open enough, even before anybody had heard of Leveson, Royal Charters or recognition panels. Press freedom is constrained by dozens of laws, and by a powerful conformist culture of You Can’t Say That.

Culture secretary Maria Miller rejected the newspaper publishers’ alternative proposals as “unable to comply with some fundamental Leveson principles and government policy”. To which the considered answer should be: so what?

Since when did a free press have to comply with the whims of government ministers and judges?

Freedom of expression and of the press remains not only the lifeblood of a civilised society, but also an indivisible liberty. The ultimate responsibility of a free press is to publish and be damned, without needing to pass a test set by politicians, judges, lobbyists, Her Majesty’s Honourable Privy Councillors or anybody else. The only body to judge what is in the “public interest” should be the public itself.

Whatever happens in the  phone-hacking and other related trials now beginning, let  the cry go up – Free the UK Press!

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