‘The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by when any defence would be necessary of the “Liberty of the Press”. So wrote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty over a century and a half ago. The circumstances today may be somewhat different to when Mill published his most famous work, but the issue of press freedom remains the same. Such issues have been brought to the fore by the recent case brought by Sir Cliff Richard against the BBC for its actions during the police investigation of his home in 2014. The court ruled against the BBC, and in favour of Sir Cliff’s ‘rights to privacy’. The ruling has the potential to spiral us into a crisis concerning the right to a free press and the public’s right to know.
The real and present danger is the course this ruling, which bites at the core of the liberty the press has long held to report freely and openly all events, will be used to legitimate future actions against the press, or even more frighteningly, legislation to effectively muzzle journalists and silence them on issues such as this. How are journalists, the guardians of our society against abuses of power and position, supposed to act without fear or favour in undertaking this vital duty, if the threat of £210’000 in damages and £850’000 in legal fees hangs over their heads like the Sword of Damocles? How, can journalists investigating cases relating to serious matters such as historic sex abuse claims and large-scale frauds continue, with the knowledge that the law, such as it is, protects not them, nor the freedom of the press, nor the publics right to know but when it comes down to it, protects the wealthy and powerful in the same way the cloak of power protected the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris for decades.
Such a piece of case-law could effectively be used to muzzle the press in countless cases, where those being investigated or reported on do not wish to face such scrutiny. And like it or not, the free press is our only defence against state abuses and underhand practices among those who otherwise act and behave above the auspices of the law. There are many who say it is not the job of the press to investigate crime, or to ‘expose’ anything or anyone to public ridicule, but to ‘report the news’. This could not be further from the truth. Our free press was founded with the very aim of exposing corruption, highlighting waste and holding those in power to account. The fearless journalists of the early 19thcentury risked their liberty and some their lives to do just this, facing down the likes of the domineering Lord Ellenborough, of ‘Hellenborough’ as many nicknamed him, in court. William Hone, a great champion of the free press fought and won three acquittals in 1817, having published parodies exposing government corruption to public ridicule. The same man, years earlier pioneered the field of investigatory journalism, when he completely disproved the circumstantial evidence, which had been cobbled together in 1815 to condemn and hang a young Maid, Elizabeth Fenning, for attempted murder. Both a watchdog stance and investigations are now as then, well within the preserve of the press.
Along the same lines, there are those who would argue that it is the job of the police and authorities to ‘investigate’, not the press. But again, the countless cases where it has been the press, not the authorities exposing historic crimes and offences demonstrates the importance of the role the press plays as a watchdog. Love it or loathe it, the press remains a guardian of liberty and justice, all be it not in every instance. I will be the first to admit that the press does much more than this, and perhaps not always in the interests of the society as a whole; it oversteps the mark and makes errors. But I cannot condone any action which seeks to arbitrarily silence any journalist.
This new verdict, and the threat of legislation to regulate what the press can and cannot report or investigate, has a real danger of letting the guilty remain unpunished, while penalising the very people who in some cases seek to uncover the truth. How long will it be, if we go down the road of legislation, before journalists are once again before courts, judges and juries accused of invasions of ‘privacy’, or for publishing a story about an individual whom has had accusations made against them “before” they are officially charged? What would we do if those accusations were true? And so was the story? Can we prosecute a journalist for printing the truth, no matter how they obtained it? Let us not allow the maxim of ‘the greater the truth the greater the libel’ to return to our justice system. And if this is to be the case, if journalists are to be prosecutable under the law for the stories they write, as some in parliament and throughout the country wish, then let us place our trust in that ancient British institution, the trial by jury and hope that 12 honest citizens will set our pens free.