Whose Freedom? Whose Press?

By Cohen, Nick | The Spectator, November 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Whose Freedom? Whose Press?


Cohen, Nick, The Spectator


A love for freedom of the press inspired Milton, Voltaire, Jefferson, Madison, Mill and Orwell. Ringing declarations of the right of citizens to read and write what they choose have run through constitutions and charters of liberties. Modern Britain being the way it is, however, the lofty rhetoric of the past has sunk to debates about celebs and breasts. Specifically, the breasts on page three of The Sun , and the tits who publish them.

Evan Harris, tribune of the Hacked Off campaign, makes a plausible argument that an effective press regulator could ban page three girls. After Lord Justice Leveson hears all the evidence of mass wrongdoing by journalists, he is likely to recommend a media authority that would treat journalists as if they were professionals akin to doctors or lawyers. Once that step has been taken, Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, could say that no employer allows boorish men to stick up pictures of naked women in the workp lace. They demean and int im idate female colleagues. But the Sun still prints pictures 'it would never put on the walls of its own newsroom'. Why would a reputable regulator overseeing journalists committed to new professional standards allow that?

The battles around Leveson are likely to turn vicious. Fleet Street knows how much it may lose, and knows that it has no one to blame but itself. Not a single hacking story the Leveson inquiry has told us about was in the public interest. Journalists and their managers had the powers of a secret police force to monitor private conversations. All they did was hack the phones of celebrities and the victims of crime. They cannot produce in their defence one example of illegal surveillance being used to expose an abuse of power or corruption of government.

It is not even as if everyone demanding regulation is an authoritarian. The academics around the Hacked Off campaign are in my experience products of late-20th- century leftism. Their only enemy is corporate power, and they can always find reasons to be somewhere else when basic liberties need defending. Nor do I see why the freedoms of this country should be torn up because Hacked Off's star witness Max Mosley believes that if a gentleman wishes to hire whores by the half-dozen to beat his bottom to a pulp, it is nobody's business but his own. But Evan Harris could not be more different. He is one of the most impressive and principled politicians I know: and a friend and comrade in the campaign for libel reform. Meanwhile Brian Cathcart, the driving force behind Hacked Off, was a serious journalist before he became an academic, and published a fine investigation into the deaths of soldiers at the Deepcut barracks.

In other words, if you want to take them on, you need to do better than reproduce the self-interested snarls of wounded Fleet Street editors. You make a start when you grasp that journalism has never been and cannot be a profession. Freedom of the press is the freedom of all citizens to write and broadcast. Once that freedom was as risible as the old joke that capitalism meant that everyone was free to book a room at the Ritz. …

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