Freedom of the Press under Threat in UK

March 20, 2013

The Spectator: NoA deal has been reached by all three major political parties in the United Kingdom to impose severe restrictions on the freedom of the press, apparently including the Internet.  Details are still unclear,* but it seems to include an Orwellian ministry of truth that would have the power to order newspapers to issue “corrections”, letting the government replace what a paper reported with what the government says is true.

Some of the Britons or ex-Britons at National Review Online explain.

Today, Britain’s three major parties agreed on a shameful compromise to bring the fractious British press under official regulation for the first time since 1771, when John Wilkes — the English equivalent of John Peter Zenger — successfully established the right of newspapers to publish uncensored reporting of parliamentary and public affairs. . . .

The motives behind it are all too obvious. With all their flaws, Britain’s newspapers — not least the despised tabloids and the Daily Mail, hated for its strong defense of middle-class values — have uncovered a series of grave public scandals, including the fraudulent misuse of parliamentary expenses by MPs, that have embarrassed the politicians and the establishment.

The deal was cooked up, apparently, by the leaderships of Britain’s three main establishment parties, something that (as I noted last night on Twitter) reminded me of nothing so much as the last line of Animal Farm.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

As John noted, UKIP has taken a different, characteristically independent, stance — a robust defense of free speech. Draw your own conclusions. It is to be hoped that the voters do.

Now, in my country of birth the government claims to have come to a “deal” on the freedom of the press. This should raise alarm bells: Free nations, suffice it to say, do not come to “deals” on the freedom of the press.

I think our friend Iain Murray Tweets it well:

Let me get this right: Parliament will hold the press to account? Words cannot begin to express how bass-ackward that is.

Quite so. And yet, in Britain, in Canada, in Australia (which is to say in some of the oldest free societies on earth and among the very few developed nations that did not succumb to the mid-20th century totalitarian fevers), it is now received wisdom that state power is required to “balance” free speech with competing societal interests as determined by regulatory bureaucrats.

Stuttaford recommends the blogger Cranmer.

It beggars belief that an English prime minister — and a Conservative prime minister at that — could support proposals which will censor, inhibit or neuter investigative journalism. Not for 300 years have newspapers been ‘licensed’ by the state. Those which do not cooperate will face the possibility of draconian fines, such that their operations may become uninsurable.

. . .

Parliament urgently needs another John Stuart Mill to persuade the Commons of their folly, for the political pygmies who seek to regulate the press are devoid of any philosophical understanding of liberty.

The newspapers of Great Britain are not taking this lying down—not all of them, anyway.  The Spectator just says No to censorship.

Instead, we have a dog’s breakfast of a Royal Charter which actually makes less sense the more you read it. . . . It’s perhaps fitting that the Charter is written in archaic language: that’s how they spoke in the 1690s, the last time there was state regulation of the press in England. All together, it’s a recipe for disaster and future power grabs.

. . . You don’t need to understand the text of the Royal Charter to grasp its key point: this is a clear attempt for politicians to license the press.  It’s a power grab.

But the press has a choice. It can sign up David Cameron’s peculiar Royal Charter press club, with its medieval dress code, or it can decline. I strongly suspect that newspapers will give their own ‘no’ to the Royal Charter — perhaps in a smaller font size — and then produce their own robust regulation with all the essential components of the Leveson deal. Press freedom is worth fighting for, and I suspect the newspapers will now fight.

Also at the Spectator, Nick Cohen writes, “It’s not a press regulator, it’s a web regulator.”

Politicians and broadcasters . . . see the excesses and alleged crimes of the tabloids and want to say that the legislation before Parliament will stop them. But there is also a strong element of propaganda. By focusing on the brutishness of the tabloids, they make the public forget about attacks on fundamental principles and perhaps allow themselves to forget as well. . . .

The chilling effect is the most sinister and pervasive form of censorship, and something no robust, plain-speaking democracy should tolerate.

Here’s some of what coverage I could find from other British papers:

Cartoon: Mac on Press Regulation

The Guardian has several pieces on this in the news and opinion sections.

(All hyperlinks in the originals.)

* As Nick Cohen writes, “Downing Street . . . has returned to the old line that it doesn’t have a clue what is going on. Be kind, it’s only the government, why should it?

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