Michael St George mourns the passing, after 300 years, and in a liberal democracy, of a free press
For lovers of democratic freedom and civil liberties, Wednesday was a black day. At about 5.30.pm, an arcane body, grandly called Her Majesty’s Privy Council – but in reality a collection of politicians – met with its head, Britain’s supposedly apolitical monarch. Acting, as she’s constitutionally bound to do, on their “advice”, she put her signature to a type of document, a Royal Charter, that’s more normally used to create worthy charities or professional institutions.
This one, though, is a bit more far-reaching than that. It could end up spelling the effective end of a free press in Britain, by making it subject to state licensing for the first time in over 300 years. As The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson so aptly put it: “The foxes have voted, and after careful deliberation concluded that they should be in charge of the chicken coop“. Quite.
This was the conclusion of a long process, by a very unholy combination. A combination of politicians thirsting for revenge on the press that in 2009 revealed their expenses scams and exposed them to justified public odium; of a few hackneyed celebrities irritated at having their auras pierced by the publicity given to their more sordid sides; and of a shadowy pressure group composed of malign leftist academics and journos itching to establish a predominantly left-wing media. All colluding to exploit the public’s natural revulsion at some outrageous, but comparatively few, instances of invasion of privacy, to bring about something far, far more dangerous and threatening to democracy.
It’s not going to happen next week, and it’s not going to happen overnight. The most insidious curtailments of freedom seldom do. They erode it little by little, until you wake up one morning and realise just how much you’ve lost.
The Charter doesn’t immediately impose new rules on the print media. But it creates a process under which, albeit at several removes, they could be imposed, and by administrative fiat rather than by any democratic or judicial procedure with inherent checks and balances. The Charter creates a recognition panel, and it’s to that panel that a new press regulator would have to apply for recognition as a press regulator, provided it can persuade enough print media outlets to sign up to its supervision. At the moment, there’s few signs of many, or even any, being prepared to do that.
But there are some stings in the tail. The Charter’s provisions have been written in such a way that it can be amended by only a two-thirds majority in the Parliament – not such an outlandish possibility, you might think, with whipped votes and politicos anxious to keep prying eyes away from some of their less creditworthy activities. And worse, under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, that two-thirds requirement could itself be reduced to a mere 51%, and by a simple majority of members voting on such a change. Ever clocked how many Honourable Members can be bothered to turn up on a Friday afternoon?
So, despite the reservations, a Rubicon of some sorts has been crossed. Britain now has a mechanism under which, fairly easily, the state could require the press to be licensed by it. A move that free speech and press freedom groups around the world have begged us not to make, because it will give encouragement to far less benign regimes who still don’t dare go that far. A move which puts us in the company of such bastions of press freedom as Iran, Turkey, Khazakhstan and Col Ghadaffi’s Libya. And if licensing comes, can soft, or even hard censorship be guaranteed not to follow, little by little?
The invasions of privacy which the advocates of press non-freedom cite as justification are already offences under criminal law. Some of them commenced trial this week. “Unfair” remarks about celebrities are actionable for libel under civil law if they’re inaccurate. Some of them have been. As argued in one of the best commentaries on this imbroglio seen by me this week, if the press needs to be regulated, the best regulation is that exercised through the voluntary market-power of the wallets of its customers. And finally, the print media is dying, giving way to a multiplicity of different digital platforms by which we obtain our news and comment, many of them hosted outside British jurisdiction and beyond the scope of its law anyway.
Yet, despite all this, the political class has gone ahead with its abomination of a Charter, as a means to “regulate” a free press, which ought to be one of the bastions of a free society. It may initially be ineffective. But it’s there, on the statute book, and prone to the temptation to make it wider in application, or more restrictive, purely on political whim. There’s no such thing as a partly or mostly free press – the press is either totally free, or its un-free. Britain, potentially, no longer has a free press. It has the real prospect of a press liable to the imposition of political control. On Wednesday, something very precious died – or rather was killed off.
*”The Day The Music Died”: term originally used of the death in an air crash in February 1959 of Buddy Holly, one of music’s original rock & roll greats and influencer of all who came after him. Now often additionally used to denote an event signifying the end of something very special, very unlikely to be repeated or to return. Like the freedoms and safeguards given by a free press.