Friday, 6 January 2017

What the Papers Are Allowed to Say

Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. The average citizen of this land could be forgiven for having never heard of it, especially if they get all of their news from the BBC as so many do. Yet this draconian piece of fascism masquerading as liberalism is an affront to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. It is the latest assault on the press in this country, a press already under severe pressure from the internet, free media and the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter and the dear old BBC.

Section 40, which is on the statute book and awaiting being triggered, is supposedly necessary to keep our press in check. That sounds reasonable enough doesn't it. Actually it doesn't as far as I am concerned. I find the idea of a state approved regulator of the press to be deeply sinister. But even if you consider it to be reasonable, it is hard to see how the notion behind Section 40 can be seen as anything other than disproportionate. This would enable anyone who found themselves written about in our press in a way less than fawning and credulous to claim that they have been defamed. They could bring a case against said newspaper which, if it had not signed up to the government approved regulator, would have to pay its own costs and that of its accuser, regardless of the merits of their case. In other words sign up to the regulator or else.

Defenders of this arrangement claim that the press have brought this upon themselves by their behaviour. This is a travesty of the truth. That is akin to claiming that an entire race of people should be regarded as criminal just because a minority are. Some newspapers behaved badly a few years ago. So what? That's life isn't it. The press is a wide ranging term for a disparate group of publications. To tar them all with the same brush is deeply illiberal, unfair and insidious.

I am an absolutist where freedom of speech is concerned. I accept the old judicial argument about not being allowed to go into a crowded theatre and yell fire. But then freedom of the press never meant that they could yell fire with impunity and nobody ever argued that they should or would.

Most of our newspapers, despite being in a fantastically competitive environment in a diminishing marketplace, behave responsibly and proportionately. Newspapers continue to set the agenda more than the broadcast media and to engage in investigative journalism despite its expense. What they write, though certainly prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, must be broadly based in fact. If they genuinely defame anyone then the legal system affords them a remedy. IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation has broadly been a success. But more than that, after the shock of the phone hacking scandal, newspapers have reined themselves in and stopped the worst excesses.

Section 40 is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Worse, Impress, the government approved regulator created by Max Mosley of all people, would not be an independent and fair regulator. No government has any business imposing regulation on the press. We need it more than ever.

For all of their cant about the iniquities of the press, the various celebrities who have complained about how they were treated largely brought about their own problems. They want the fame and the wealth but without the unwelcome attention when it becomes inconvenient. I for one don't care which soap stars are sleeping with whom and which footballers are banging which glamour model. But the public seems to. Thus newspapers report it. If its not true then they should be brought to heel. But if it is true then they are fair game.

There has been a long history in this country of the wealthy using the libel laws to try and silence criticism. Robert Maxwell got away with it for years. Donald Trump invariably threatens to sue anyone who crosses him including the media and has been advocating a toughening of US libel laws to suit himself, although thankfully for that country it has a written constitution that guarantees press freedom and so he is unlikely to prevail. This country is sadly not so lucky. Our politicians and the courts can do what they like to our freedom of speech and the freedom of the press to report on whatever they see fit so long as what they write is supported by facts. As the whole ridiculous farrago over super injunctions proves however, some see this as unreasonable. That the courts backed cheating celebrities such as David Furnish and their right to privacy was a farce in itself. Now the government risks taking this already illiberal regime even further and in a profoundly dangerous way.

There is simply no need for a government backed press regulator. Indeed it should never have approved a regulator at all. The press in this country is a fundamental part of our democracy. In a world of fake news, internet conspiracy theories, of no platforming and Twitter mobs our press is part of our defence against mob justice and spittle flecked offence takers. Is it perfect, does it always behave in an exemplary fashion? Of course not. But then who does? If we did there would be no need for the press at all.

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