Press propaganda before the Leveson report came out warned darkly that a statutory press scrutiny body would herald a return to a censorship regime that expired in 1695. The Telegraph and others insinuated that in that year newspaper publishers, tireless in their defence of free speech, finally won out against an overweening state.
The truth is more or less the opposite. In 1695, the House of Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act, a Restoration measure designed to bring the press to heel after relative freedom during the English republic. The act handed powers of censorship to the Stationers’ Company, a printers’ and publishers’ guild – or, as we now say, cartel. Sir Roger L’Estrange, a newspaper publisher who used his news-sheets to diffuse his high Tory views, was created Surveyor of the Imprimery and Licenser of the Press in 1662-63. The Stationers’ men had the power to break up presses printing unlicensed works – a fate that in 1670 befell John Redmayne, reprinter of Hobbes’s Leviathan. In 1710 the Copyright Act protected intellectual property while giving publishing houses a lock on the rights.
What sticks in the craw over Leveson is the special pleading by press hidalgos ready to co-opt the principle of free speech to serve unaccountable power and the bottom line. Like Conrad Black and the late Robert Maxwell, they’re happy to junk free speech for libel litigation when it suits them. Pressmen who try to get some reflected legitimacy from the principle of free speech usually ignore two trivial truths: first, oligopolists are interested mainly in the freedom to run oligopolies; second, as Noam Chomsky says, nobody thinks that opinions they agree with shouldn’t be published, so publishing them hardly signals a commitment to free speech. That would demand that unheard voices were heard, or unvoiced opinions given a platform – for example, about freedom of the press. But little of that is to be had from News International, Associated Newspapers or Press Holdings.
As the deputy prime minister said last year, the Press Complaints Commission is a ‘busted flush’. The ideology of freedom-as-oligopoly itself implies that a regulatory body like the PCC will be impotent. ‘Busted flush’ is putting it mildly – the entire sewerage network has shown itself to be in a state of terminable seepage, bespattering victims of crime, their families, celebrities and the falsely accused. In response to the unctuous claim that a statutory body would imperil free speech: there’s no reason why it should. It hasn’t in Ireland, where the Press Ombudsman set up in 2008 works as an independent press regulator; it hasn’t stopped robust public comment on politicians’ failings. The major abuses exposed by Leveson concerned gross intrusions into privacy; preventing that isn’t the same as imposing curbs on what can be said or who can say it. It’s also self-serving of the press to say that since such intrusions (some now sub judice) fall within the purview of existing laws, no action need be taken.
Cartels use carrots or sticks to stifle opposition and it’s clear that the police avidly took the carrot: in the Met, selling privileged information to hacks seems to have been a cottage industry. At least the police are now subject to an independent regulatory body, set up in 2004. It’s already clear that the prime minister has no plans to set up a similar outfit to check the press, though according to a recent YouGov poll, 79 per cent of people favour it. David Cameron seems to have decided he’s less scared of the people than of a vengeful fourth estate. No doubt their paymasters will be duly grateful come the next election.
The news bosses missed a trick, however, in lobbying against a vigorous code of practice. By kitemarking their product and institutionalising the distinction between news and drivel, newspapers might – at least in the short run – have benefited from strong protections for journalistic freedom, non-disclosure and a broad investigative remit.
Still, the elephant in Leveson’s chambers – the brontosaurus in his closet – is the internet; newspapers have yet to come up with a credible business model for the move to print-free news. The explosion of online information sources gives instant free news to anyone with a phone. While market ideology identifies quality with price, paywalling won’t work if people can get what’s behind the stockade elsewhere for nothing. Contrary to Leveson’s suggestion, it’s not that any one blogger stands comparison with well-heeled news organisations: it’s that internauts can access the gamut of online information, collate information and reach their own judgments. The competition is not just between sources of news, but ways of consuming it.