Calls for stricter rules will be a disaster for freedom of speechby Geoffrey Robertson / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Hackgate” exposed the fraudulence of press self-regulation. But what should replace it?
The Leveson inquiry into the ethics of the British press, set up in response to the tabloid phone hacking scandal, finally gets under way in November. Where should it lead? The politicians who called for it have no idea. Ivan Lewis, shadow culture secretary at the time, wanted editors and journalists subjected to “professional” regulation—heavy fines, or the equivalent of disbarment—just like reckless doctors and irresponsible barristers. Ed Miliband, by contrast, says he still wants the tabloids to regulate themselves, thereby clinging to a notion wholly undermined by half a century of failures by the Press Council and Press Complaints Commission (PCC).
To the siren call for “professional” regulation, there is a fundamental objection: journalism is not a profession. It is the exercise, by occupation, of the right to free expression available to every citizen. As that right is available to all, it cannot, in principle, be withdrawn from a few by any system of licensing or professional registration. We have not had press licensing in this country since the Stationers’ Company lost its monopoly over the press in 1695 and the demise of that sinister Restoration official: “the Surveyor of the Press.” Ivan Lewis should brush up on British constitutional history, which revolts at the prospect of a government-appointed regulator silencing a newspaper by administrative diktat, or by withdrawing a journalist’s right to write.