Given the great length of time between the Leveson Report’s publication and this post, it may seem as if I’m way behind the curve. I was only reminded of Leveson when watching an episode of The World at War. In 1942, when this country was losing on three fronts to Germany and Japan, the press remained critical of many government policies, and the Daily Mirror led the way, criticizing many a government policy. Indeed, one cartoon criticizing the rise in fuel duty was too much criticism for Churchill to take and he wanted to ban the Mirror.
The public and Parliament were outraged. The then editor of the Evening Standard made the following speech to rally the nation to defend press freedom:
“The liberty of the press in this country can only be maintained, by the vigilance of the people, and the vigilance of Parliament and the courage of the newspapers themselves. That’s the only way. Therefore we must fight, fight, fight to retain those liberties.
“The ministers come along and tell us and have told us in the last two or three weeks, of course ‘it’s only the Daily Mirror that they’re trying to get at.’ ‘The attack is over,’ they say. ‘No more demands on any other newspapers. All other newspapers may continue to live in tranquillity, and in freedom, and in peace.’
“There’s something rather familiar about those words: ‘I have no more territorial demands…’
“I can picture in my mind’s eye now, Mr Morrison (then-Home Secretary) himself muttering those words, ‘I have no more territorial demands…’ coming down Shoe Lane with a firm look on his jaw, and a hot gun in his pocket; with the Evening Standard safely suppressed…and its proprietor safely looked after.”
For me, the most striking part of this impassioned speech is what is not said. That even in this time of war, when everyone’s noses were to the grindstone, when this country had to weed out sedition and treason and had to portray a greatly positive image of the war effort through any means of propaganda; we did not restrict press freedoms to investigate or criticise the government, other than the boundaries set out under the existing civil and criminal law is among the most admirable positions this country has ever taken. The overwhelmingly Tory Parliament stood against it. It remains a glimmering beacon to people who value the press. In the name of God, please don’t throw this away.
We often forget this point. Once you start with a statutory interpretation of the press, the Senior Courts of the United Kingdom will start to interpret these laws and they won’t be pretty. Further legislation is likely then to occur, to ‘iron out’ the ambiguities and further erode press freedoms in this nation. One only need look at the Anti-Terror legislations to see how they have eroded our liberties over the past twelve years, or at the various European Treaties that we’ve signed since 1972 to see how vain law evolves into something much darker, because it was done for political purposes. Just look at Greece or France where journalists are put on trial for exposing corruption in their country. This could happen to us.
Remember, like Churchill and Morrison, groups like Hacked Off only want these laws for ‘Tabloid’ rather than ‘broadsheet’ journalism. For those of you who want this legislation, please answer me this, where will it end? How long will such a settlement last until it needs to be reviewed? I highly doubt that there will be a satisfactory response to the matter.
That isn’t to say I disagree with everything that Lord Justice Leveson says. I believe, for instance, that he’s right about the need for an arbitration panel for the victims of civil wrongs like libel or an invasion of privacy. Litigation can be an ordeal and a less formal structure that is legally binding ought to accommodate such activities. Access to justice for the victims (more the parents of Charlotte Church than Charlotte Church per se) is something that is severely lacking in our current system.
By the way, the author of the quote was a man who would later become Labour Leader – Michael Foot. David Cameron has heeded Foot’s words and has taken a stand against the statutory regulation of the press. He deserves credit for this. And frankly, other MPs must follow suit and heed Michael Foot’s warning.