A free press?

I have already done a short post on Lords of the Blog about my stance on press regulation.  I am instinctively wary of the state limiting the freedom of the press.  I was invited to sign a letter on the subject, sponsored by Conservative MP Conor Burns and Labour MP David Blunkett, making the case against more state regulation.  It was a concise expression of my views so I was happy to sign it.  I see I am in good company.  You can see the list of signatories in this article.  The press at times may be irresponsible, but you do not ultimately get a more responsible press through law but rather through society becoming more responsible and tolerant: newspapers reflect the values of their readers, not the other way round.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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14 Responses to A free press?

  1. Neil M says:

    I share your instinctive wariness of State regulation but I am becoming slightly puzzled as to why Leveson was set up with the Terms of Reference he had, given that (a) as a failure of enforcement, why didn’t we save ourselves the cost of a public enquiry and simply re-investigate and prosecute? (which in some cases we seem to be doing anyway) and (b) the rush for people to take positions ahead of his report even being published (there were suggestions of Leveson himself being lampooned by some politicos at a recent awards bash). Your letter makes the point that there should be a proper debate of the issues and recommendations (once we see them). Let’s hope others don’t try to make it about Leveson himself.

    • Croft says:

      “why didn’t we save ourselves the cost of a public enquiry and simply re-investigate and prosecute”

      The enquiry was a political move to be seen to respond to public anger – it wasn’t a response to what had happened; as you have correctly pointed out all that went on that mattered was already illegal. Sadly, as was pretty obvious, the enquiry was always going to be piggybacked by those who has always wanted something closer to the pliant press of many European countries.

      Britain’s absurd libel laws and gagging via super injunctions have already made it safer/wiser for many to publish abroad. If anything statutory regulation will only speed up the death of the paper press and the flight to safer jurisdictions for publication from where free speech is protected.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: Quite so. Inquiries are becoming like legislation – whenever there’s an outcry over some event (‘something must be done’) we either have a Bill or an inquiry. There is a case for a Legislative Standards Committee and perhaps now one for an Inquiries Standards Committee!

      • Croft says:

        Certainly LN the haphazard way Inquiries are setup with no consistency or accountability for appointment/remit/powers is pretty shambolic. Personally I don’t like judicial inquiries very much as I don’t think they have any special knowledge. An expert panel might at least have had some real understanding of the subject. If you read the Levenson report you the internet barely exists…

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  3. The views of the great Victorian, Walter Bagehot, are relevant to the Leveson debate. Young Walter was in Paris and saw the coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon in 1851, and, in Feb 1852, he wrote about the state of the French newspaper press:

    “The influence of the Press, if you believe writers and printers, is the one sufficient condition of social well-being. Yet there are many considerations which make very much against this idea… First, newspaper people are the only traders that thrive upon convulsion. In quiet times, who cares for the paper? In times of tumult, who does not?…. I can’t altogether sympathise in the extreme despondency of many excellent persons at its temporary silence since the coup d’état…. The ban must sooner or later be taken off; the President sooner or later must submit to censure and ridicule, and whatever laws he may propose about the press, there is none which scores of ingenious men—now animated by the keenest hatred, will not try every hazard to evade.…. A really sensible press, arguing temperately after a clear and satisfactory exposition of the facts, is a great blessing in any country.”

    See further on the Walter Bagehot website: http://www.bagehotlangport.co.uk/

  4. JoelPearce says:

    As the report explains, a ‘free press’ is about more than media barons being able to publish whatever they like regardless of fairness and accuracy. Whilst any regulation limiting the press would be unacceptable, all the Leveson report suggests is a law requiring independent regulation – this will not impose on the ‘free press’, but will ensure that newspaper standards are upheld.

    • Lord Norton says:

      JoelPearce: And how precisely in legislative terms will this be achieved? There is a difference between intent and giving effect to it in legislative form. I shall be interested to see which minister presents such a Bill and has to confirm that it is compliant with the ECHR.

    • Croft says:

      Oh dear me. The idea that you can fine/require papers to publish specific content in a prescribed way via an act of parliament and this is not ‘imposing’ on the free press is preposterous.

      LN: Judicial gagging of the press has survived many ECHR challenges. The judiciary seem conformable with restriction on the free press as long as they are the ones with the power.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: Exactly. I take the point about practice elsewhere, which has not been held in contravention of Article 10, but my point was as much about the views of ministers and whether they will be influenced by the line taken by Liberty.

      • Croft says:

        Hmm, not sure I follow the point. Based on past practice ECHR challenges fail and ministers have in the past have made ECHR statements and subsequently lost in the courts. If you’re implying that they are crossing the Rubicon by ignoring prominent advice then they long since seem to have done so?

        PS – On a separate note I know you’re no longer on the Constitution Committee but in light of the present suggestion that ministers might be in breach of the ministerial code if they vote against prisoner votes and therefore might be compelled to abstain ought someone not be investigating/raising this matter in parliament as it seems a astonishing state of affairs if true.

  5. maude elwes says:

    If you any of you believe we have anything close to a ‘free press and media’ here in the UK and that therefore the Leveson suggestion of regulation, whatever that regulation means, will not shut more information down away from general understanding, then you are living in cuckoo land. Our press and media are censored quite a bit in comparison to countries elsewhere.

    Here is a simple example. Dispatches made a documentary in 2011. It is blocked from the British viewers today via the Internet. And many similar varieties of documentary are blocked likewise. The excuse, in this case is, this video is private, you cannot see it in your country. Speculate any way you like, who, how, what and when. But you will be hard pressed to find out who, how, what, when and where when you try a ittle reseach.

    All you will find is this trailer.

    http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/video/series-102/episode-1/the-wonderful-world-of-tony-blair

    So, Leveson, will simply add to this censorship and give, rich, duplicitous, underhand, nasty pieces of work, a closet to hide in. And more importantly hide from our UK citizens the ‘right’ to know how they are duped as well as being sold out to the bigger bidder.

  6. ladytizzy says:

    This too shall pass.

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