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Gargoyles and cornerstones

Given that Leveson still has not seen his report implemented, this seems an appropriate moment to reflect on whatw e said two years ago.

Any time a journalist or politician  starts citing principles rooted in decisions taken more than 300 years ago any progressive person should, at the very least, raise a quizzical eyebrow. Not everything that happened in history was a good thing, and yesterday’s advances might turn out to have been diversions into blind alleys. Or, to put it in the historical jargon, the Whigs may not have been right about history being all about progress towards our current state. As we know to our cost over the last 16 years things can not only get better but can also get worse.

When the likes of Nick Cohen make bold and vigorous statements like ‘The friends of freedom should not make exceptions because freedom’s enemies never do.’ we should all, at the very least, ask ‘whose freedoms’ and ‘what is freedom?’

The argument that press freedom is a special class of the right to freedom of speech is at the heart of the assertion of the freedom of the press as being somehow distinct from freedom of speech as a general concept. The civil servant or local government officer handing over a confidential report to the press can expect to lose their job unless they can demonstrate a very strong public interest in publication – the journalist will simply claim they were doing their job, and move onto their next victim (sorry, source).  It was that sense that journalism is a higher calling, a mysterious cornerstone of democracy, that enabled journalists at the News of The World to persuade themselves that breaking the law was OK because it wasn’t crime, it was journalism.

Whenever anyone claims something is a cornerstone of democracy I feel sorry for the architects of democracy, who seem to have designed a building with an infinite number of corners supported on assertions, not masonry. It’s the least probable piece of architecture since a host of small gods decided to build a flat world on some elephants riding on a  turtle (and that idea of course was dreamed up a former journalist and press officer for the nuclear industry, who could easily be described as having a background in implausible stories passed off to the public).

The dilemma for anyone who genuinely believes in freedom of speech was summed up by Richard Peppiatt writing in the Guardian some time ago:

“The murkier end of our newspaper industry is riding parasitically on the back of legitimate concerns about the effect on investigative journalism of statutory prior notification, types of reporting they rarely, if ever, indulge in.”

Is it really important for the state of public discourse in England today that Carol Malone of the Daily Mirror be allowed to denounce the sexuality of others as sleazy and immoral? There is nothing wrong in having moral arbiters in life. However, there’s a certain grim inevitability about them having feet of clay, and there’s a need to ensure that they genuinely are moral arbiters and not just a special class of harlot peddling stories of wickedness to secretly excite us. On balance though, judging those people who claim to be able to look down on the rest of us and our weaknesses and desires from their Olympian heights runs the risk of seeking to replace them in the act of dethroning them.

The distinction between prior restraint and post publication restraint is made much of by those who have us believe in the cornerstone theory. The problem is,. of course, that post publication restraint cannot ever put the genie back in the bottle – even now we know that the papers were wrong to intrude into Max Mosley’s sex life the intrusion is repeated each time lazy second rate journos like Carol Malone can’t be bothered engaging with the arguments and would rather play the man instead. if the right to privacy were properly balanced with the right to free speech we would never know about Max Mosley’s sex life, and the press would never refer to it again.

Malone’s tirade against Steve Coogan is another trenchant warning to all of us of the way the press put themselves above the law. Malone asserts that she knows about Coogan using cocaine. How do we know? Because tabloid newspapers decided to tell us all about it. It might seem like tiresome pedantry, but the press are not the police. If you’re confused about which is which that’s understandable, because newspapers have often run investigations into criminality. Not all those investigations go well, and the spectre of entrapment is all too often close to any exclusive.

At the heart of the problems with phone hacking was the fact that newspapers could not be trusted to report criminal behaviour on the part of the journalists and their agents.  That should be no surprise, because, faced with the moral duty to report Steve Coogan to the police for the crime of possessing Class A drugs or the opportunity to make some money out of a sensational story, the press almost always choose the latter route.

To make sense of all this we need to take an historical diversion. Three hundred years ago access to publication was limited by a scarcity of technology. Printing presses were not a commonplace, and they were the only mass media. The press had more freedom than the common man, because it had presses, and  money to pay for them, and protected its position jealously, even if that meant denying the rights of others. You’ll search in vain in the Times of 1834 for a comment piece insisting that the farm labourers of Tolpuddle should be allowed the rights of free speech and free association, just as there were precious few newspapers lining upm to defend Richard Lewis in 1831 or Frost, Vincent, Williams, Jones and their comrades in arms in 1839. More pertinently, when Frost was sacked as a magistrate in 1838 for speaking out in favour of democracy the silence from the press was deafening.

It’s all too easy to argue that the British press have not been the cornerstones of democracy, but its gargoyles, diverting away the rainwater and the storms, keeping the building safe but adding nothing in terms of function or form. The peril to freedom of speech now is not any attempt to prevent a small group of companies from abusing their position, but that we will fail to prevent government from increasing the areas of conversation it polices. The argument that the press should retain a degree of privilege that their behaviour and political orientation has never justified is less important than the argument that all speech should be privileged providing it respects privacy.

In all the debate and noise about the freedom of the press, that general case is being lost, at a cost to all of us.

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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