Magazine article The Spectator

Why We Won't Sign

Magazine article The Spectator

Why We Won't Sign

Article excerpt

Anyone picking up a newspaper in recent days will have noticed that the press has been writing a lot about itself. Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into press practices and ethics has created anxiety at a time when newspapers were already haemorrhaging sales and influence.

David Cameron's government's response to the report is nervously awaited, and a group of 42 Tory MPs is urging him to seize a 'oncein-a-generation' chance to regulate the press.

They threaten to rebel if he doesn't. The Prime Minister will be vilified whatever he decides to do.

As the oldest continuously published weekly in the English language, The Spectator has seen this all before. The technology changes, but the principles do not. We lambasted the Sunday Times in 1829 for putting the free press at risk with sloppy libels. We are also familiar with the Nick Clegg trick:

to declare commitment to a fierce and independent press, while trying to undermine it.

In 1833 we criticised the vainglorious Lord Brougham, then Lord Chancellor, for seeking to 'rivet fetters upon the press which he has so often eloquently eulogised as the main bulwark of our liberties'.

What is new in 2012 is that so many parliamentarians seem unaware of the principle at stake. In their letter demanding regulation, the 42 Tories express bafflement at the 'obsessive argument' against statutory regulation. But there is a reason why leaders from Thomas Jefferson onwards have 'obsessed' about press freedom: it is, as Churchill put it, 'the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize'.

No right-thinking person can fail to be appalled at the hacking scandal. The Leveson inquiry has given us a shocking glimpse into a 21st-century crime. The boom in mobile phones and email accounts has led to a massive black market in illegal information.

Hacking is a global criminal industry, for which newspapers are just one client. Exhackers explain how stolen secrets can be sold to anyone from cuckolded husbands to insurance company investigators.

But tackling this crime is a matter for the police, not for a press regulator. Laws have been tightened to prevent journalists buying from hackers, and the punishment upgraded from a fine to a jail sentence. But there is no logical link between (already illegal) phone hacking and parliament giving itself the power to set the terms under which the press operates.

While England established the principle of press freedom, the United States did most to codify it under the constitution. And James Madison, the father of that constitution, still has the best answer for those who talk about abuse of freedom of the press. …

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