For more than three centuries, the freedom of the Press has been a cherished feature of British civil life. It is an essential liberty that promotes open debate, strengthens the democratic process, and ensures that the rich and powerful can be held to account.
A rumbustious, inquisitive Press is a sign of a healthy society. In contrast, one of the first actions of any new totalitarian despot is to grasp control of the media.
Sadly, Press freedom in Britain has been under grave assault in recent years. As a result of the fallout from the phone hacking scandal, there has been a relentless drive to impose a heavy-handed regime of State regulation on our print media.
The judicial inquiry into the conduct of the Press, set up in 2011 and chaired by Sir Brian Leveson, was a key part of that push for greater official oversight.
But now, as we approach the New Year, the pressure for greater restrictions appears to be reaching a new level of intensity.
As a result of the fallout from the phone hacking scandal, there has been a relentless drive to impose a heavy-handed regime of State regulation on our print media. The judicial inquiry into the conduct of the Press, chaired by Sir Brian Leveson, was a key part of that push for greater official oversight. Now, the pressure for greater restrictions appears to be reaching a new level of intensity
As a result of the legacy of that inquiry, the Government has to decide shortly on whether or not to implement a plan whereby newspapers will face financial sanctions if they refuse to sign up with an officially approved regulator.
So what is wrong with that? Well, take a look at the organisation that will carry out the regulatory role.
It is none other than a self-appointed lobby group called Impress filled with anti-Press campaigners and almost entirely bankrolled — to the tune of £3.8 million — by the multi-millionaire Max Mosley, a man with a clear vendetta against popular newspapers. You couldn’t make this up.
Now it might be expected that I would be in favour of some curtailment of Press freedom, given that my family was one of the high-profile victims of the hacking scandal when elements of the Press decided to investigate my personal life. It was a harrowing time, which culminated in my providing evidence for the prosecution in one of the criminal hacking trials.
But my own experience, however painful it was, does not prevent me from recognising the real dangers of taking a regulatory and financial sledgehammer to the British Press, which is already under severe strain because of ferocious competition from social media on the internet.
Y es, we must respect the rights of those who have been unfairly treated by the Press. There have to be mechanisms to provide them with redress.
For their part, Impress and its anti-Press ally Hacked Off, a hardline advocate of tough State regulation, like to pose the question: ‘Whose side are you on: the victims or the Press?’
So far no newspaper of any substance has agreed to join Max Mosley’s Impress — and is it any wonder, given his hostile attitude to the Press?
But it should not be a simplistic, binary choice. We can support victims of Press intrusion without seeking to crush basic liberties that stretch back to the end of the 17th century, not least at this moment when it is the print media and properly moderated and edited information which is under the cosh. No redress exists for what is put out by unregulated bloggers on the internet.
At the heart of the new threat to Press freedom is Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This measure, which has yet to be implemented, is a form of coercion that aims, by using the threat of crippling financial penalties, to force newspapers into accepting what has been described as ‘State direction’.
Under Section 40, a news publication which fails to join the newly established official regulator will have to bear the entire costs of both sides in any libel action brought against it, no matter what the outcome.
So a newspaper could conduct an investigation into corruption by an individual, receive a libel suit, win the case, and still end up having to fork out for the failed litigant.
Meanwhile, the wrongdoer has not had to risk a penny. Effectively, the newspaper would have been fined for telling the truth. This is wrong on so many levels. If Section 40 is put into operation, the courts could be filled with frivolous and vexatious libel actions, while proper investigative journalism will be seriously undermined, since a newspaper would struggle to afford the consequences of a claim.
The effect on local newspapers, with fewer resources than the nationals, would be especially damaging — even though they were never in the firing line during the Leveson Inquiry.
We should not take a step that entrenches privilege, protects the rich and conceals corruption — as the implementation of Section 40 surely would
Ah, say the campaigners, that could all be avoided by just signing up to Impress, which in October was recognised as the official Press watchdog by the Press Regulation Panel, a taxpayer-funded quango created to give State approval to would-be regulators. Yet so far no newspaper of any substance has agreed to join Mosley’s Impress — and is it any wonder, given his hostile attitude to the Press?
Setting out to get the tabloids might be very satisfying for those who proclaim they never read them. But in reality it is you, the public, who are being treated with contempt.
To get this in perspective, it is worth taking a deep breath and pausing to reflect on a hypothetical country that is seen by our parliamentarians to be less than democratic. If a proposition like Section 40 were to be put forward by what the liberal Left consider such an ‘undesirable regime’, would they not condemn such a proposal as ‘illiberal’?
But Section 40 is not the only problem. Despite the length and cost of the first Leveson inquiry, there are now calls for Leveson Two to examine yet again the past misconduct of the Press.
These demands have been given greater impetus by the conclusion of the last of the hacking trials, which removes legal restrictions on what another Leveson inquiry can study.
Part one of Leveson cost £5.4 million. Many think it was worth that sum. But a further burst of retrospection which tells us what we already know would not just be a waste of money but also a concentration on the past rather than the future.
The fact is that learning lessons from the past is not the same thing as living in it.
The decision on whether to implement Section 40 and start Leveson Two rests with the Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. At present, she is in the middle of a consultation exercise about both steps that ends in early January, when she will have to take a decision.
Many of my colleagues in the Labour Party will be urging her to go ahead on both fronts, partly because of their understandable outrage at the way some elements of the Press have behaved in the past.
But I would ask those on the Left to think twice before agreeing to any draconian action. We are meant to believe in fighting injustice and inequality. We should not take a step that entrenches privilege, protects the rich and conceals corruption