Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
Few of us own a press, but the American humorist's remark should remind us of the privilege enjoyed by those of us who have regular use of one. With that privilege, however, comes responsibility, a responsibility that extends not only to our staff and readers, but to the wider society as well. The freedom we cherish is hedged around by restrictions. Some of these are petty and technical, but others are to the benefit of all citizens.
While we may chafe at some of the absurdities in British press law, we must all work within the law in such a way that we retain the capability of publishing what our readers require. Unlike journalists working in the United States, we cannot rely upon a constitution, or even a society, predisposed to support our activities. The British constitution's attitude to free speech in general is that it is an important principle but not one that should take automatic precedence over other rights, for instance that of property.
In recent times, free speech and press freedom have found some belated constitutional support in the European Convention on Human Rights. This at least establishes the fundamental structure of rights under which the British and European press operate. The Convention does not, however, have much to do with the normal daily practices of most working editors, acting only as the ultimate grounds for appeal in cases where high principle is at stake.
Most editors today live in a world in which freedom of the press is seen as a sectional interest rather than a general human right, and in which the activities of journalists are viewed with public scepticism and hostility. At some point these attitudes will have to be tackled, and the reputation of British journalism restored. In the meantime, realistic editors must be aware of the conditions under which they operate. To be an effective editor it is necessary to know and observe the legal and ethical restraints on publishing without allowing them to dictate what appears in our magazines. In other words, we must not allow ourselves to be defeated before we start.