Diary

Norman Buchan

‘We do not wish newspapers to fall into too few hands’: Kenneth Clarke, Trade and Industry Minister. ‘There could hardly be a more obvious increase in concentration than acquisition of a fifth national newspaper by a group which already owns four’: Sir Zelman Cowen, Chairman of the Press Council. Both these comments were made about the recent takeover of Today newspaper by Rupert Murdoch. Unbelievably, the first came from a speech in the House of Commons in defence of the takeover. Stripped of the technical and financial arguments that would have accompanied a reference up to the Monopolies Commission, the Government case was that, like the housemaid’s baby, it was only a small takeover: ‘less than 3 per cent of the market’. As a result, the position whereby one major grouping, Murdoch, controls over a third of the popular press was virtually ignored – at any rate, by the Government. Much was made of the 3 per cent. Nothing of the 35 per cent. The truth is that three men – Murdoch, Maxwell and Stevens – now control almost 80 per cent of the popular press in Britain.

This is only one part of a multiple threat which the word, written or spoken, faces at the present time. In the past the threat came solely from government, whether church or state. Printing brought them both fresh problems and they reacted swiftly. Censorship and licensing were the tools they used, and they were used on all sides. We forget that the noblest virtue of Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ was that it was written, not against the old authoritarians – that would have been easy – but in a revolutionary situation when the revolutionary forces – Parliament – themselves sought to bring back the licensing Acts: no book ‘shall from henceforth be printed or put to sale unless the same be first approved of and licensed by such person’ as Parliament approved. This, said Milton, was not the ‘liberty we can hope’. On the contrary, ‘when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained.’

When the pre-censorship was finally abolished in 1695, governments lost no time in devising another remedy: censorship through cost, via the Stamp Acts. From time to time they defended them on the basis of the need for revenue. The truth was simpler: ‘It was not against the respectable Press that this bill was directed, but against a pauper Press, which, administering to the prejudices and the passions of a mob, was converted to the basest purposes, which was an utter stranger to the truth, and only sent forth a continual stream of falsehood and malignity, its virulence and its mischief heightening as it proceeded’: this was Lord Ellenborough, speaking in 1819. A fourpenny stamp deliberately priced newspapers beyond the reach of the poor. Their answer was the unstamped press, like the Poor man’s Guardian, on whose behalf 740 men, women and children were gaoled. Their cause was eventually won with the final disappearance of the Stamp Acts in 1855.

No such ‘unstamped’ solution is available to present-day radicals. The new technologies are expensive. The word is disseminated by broadcasting as well as print. Maxwell and Murdoch already have considerable holdings in broadcasting, and they are both buying into satellite – the future of the spoken word. Paradoxically, freedom of publication untrammelled by government, and the consequent monopoly control, have led to a kind of reverse censorship, tighter, perhaps, and more effective than the actions and policies of past governments in this field. This ‘freedom’, however, has passed into much of current thinking as a kind of virtue. Indeed, it forms part of the ideological basis of ‘Thatcherism’. The Peacock Report into the future of public-service broadcasting implicitly accepts that a free-for-all in a market situation means freedom, that the new technologies cannot be controlled in any case, and finally that, in principle, they should not be controlled. Apparently blind to the reality of the press in Britain today, the Report cites what has happened to newspapers since the lifting of censorship in 1695 as the model for their new broadcasting freedom. To them, it is axiomatic that the press is free because it is free from government control. In parallel, the later Government Green Paper calls for a ‘lighter’ regulation in commercial radio. The Government simply cannot take on board that at the present time regulation is the means to secure diversity of opinion and diversity of programme. The truth is that the Peacock exemplar of the post-1695 press is more accurate than they knew. An unfettered broadcasting would indeed end, as their model press has ended, with a reduction of consumer choice, and a squashing of heresies almost unknown in scale since the Inquisition.

There is a second threat to freedom which needs to be considered, and which derives from the ‘moral majority’. There is nothing new about this either. In the old battle of the books the political and the moral repression were part and parcel of the same objective. So today. The very people who are arguing for the freedom of the entrepreneur in relation to public-service broadcasting are the ones who are arguing for the introduction of a yet more repressive Obscenity Bill. Margaret Thatcher herself voted for the last one, with all its imperfections. Following on its defeat, she has promised that the Government will support the next one. The threat is real.

The Bill was based on a new definition of obscenity: ‘that which a reasonable person would regard as grossly offensive’. In these eight words there are three indefinables – ‘reasonable’, ‘grossly’ and ‘offensive’. Any producer or director or writer would have to ponder the nature of ‘a reasonable person’, estimate just how gross is ‘grossly’, and define ‘offensive’. During the debate on the Bill I said: ‘I find this Bill offensive. I find it grossly so. I believe most people in this Committee believe I am a reasonable person. Many of you are entitled to regard this Bill itself, therefore, as a legal obscenity within the meaning of this Bill.’ Perhaps it was because of this piece of logic that Mrs Mary White-house assailed me in the corridor as ‘a disgrace to the Scottish race’. It was not simple pornography or Page Three that worried the promoters of the Bill. Time after time the same example arose – the necessary copulation scene in The Singing Detective. What concerned them was not the casual and continual violence of Starsky and Hutch but the single act of horrific violence intended to shock. Rambo would be in. Platoon would be out.

A third threat brings one back to the Stamp Acts. Once more the book trade is worried about the rumbling sound of impending VAT coming out of Brussels and the Treasury alike. The sound was heard throughout the election. In Brussels the British Commissioner Lord Cockfield, Margaret Thatcher’s nominee, was preparing the way for ‘the harmonisation of the internal market’. In this context, that meant bringing consumer taxes into line by defining a common range of products to be taxed under VAT and, if possible, within a common range of tax rate. For Britain, that would mean an end to the zero rating on VAT for things like baby clothes, fuel, services and, once again, books and publications. The book trade has been hesitant to respond. They are nervous about crying wolf. We have, after all, faced this threat before and beaten it off. But they had better listen to other voices and other pressures nearer home. The Government is committed to cutting income tax. There is little scope for income tax cuts without a shift towards indirect taxation – something this government is in favour of. There is pressure, then, both political and ideological, to get us to toe the Brussels line. The Government has a problem. Already they are coming under fierce attack for the proposed introduction of a poll tax: in their eagerness to end rates, they had forgotten that the poll tax is a direct personal tax (just as they have yet to learn that it is less equitable than income tax).

Throughout the last election there were various attempts from Thatcher downwards to make light of the rumours emanating from Brussels. There was a general evasiveness: ‘No government would give commitments about any tax in advance.’ Mrs Thatcher herself took the lead in this. She stressed that Britain would decide what taxes it put on, not Brussels. She failed to point out that the taxes being suggested from Brussels were precisely in line with the indirect taxation towards which her government was moving. Furthermore, she ignored the effect of the Single European Act, passed this spring, with its weakening of the veto. It was for this reason that the disavowals were so vague. Nigel Lawson employed the Treasury’s customary weasel words: ‘There is no present intention ...’ Mrs Thatcher was rather more specific: ‘If anyone tried to put Value Added Tax on children’s clothes and shoes, they would never, never, never get it through the House.’ The lady doth protest too much. Three nevers in a row! On food, she said: ‘Let me say to people I have undertaken not to do it on food ...’ But of course she had already done so: that principle was breached when she introduced VAT on takeaways. One remembers the commitment given by Geoffrey Howe eight years ago at the 1979 General Election, when he declared that they had no intention of doubling Value Added Tax. Fifty days after the election VAT ‘only’ went up from 8 to 15 per cent. A classic Treasury fulfilment – keeping within the right side of a pledge by 1 per cent!

So we are right to be worried. And worried all the more because the one commodity that was never mentioned in all the disavowals was books and other publications. Significantly, this was a point brought out by a number of Tory Members in a motion tabled immediately after Lord Cockfield’s proposals were published. It urged the Government to extend to books, newspapers and magazines the same commitment they had given regarding VAT on other essentials. So far, there has been no Government response.

A 15 per cent tax on books would mean an increase of something like 25 per cent in price, because the fall in demand would cause a rise in unit cost. There would also be a cutback in the number of new titles: the Newspaper Society estimates that it could mean a huge loss of weeklies. The effect on libraries would be serious. Public libraries, already hard-pressed, would be forced to cut back on new purchases because of the price factor. They can, however, reclaim VAT. Academic libraries would be clobbered both on price and on tax. The issue here is the issue that was contested in the battle against the Stamp Acts. This is a tax on knowledge: and a tax on democracy, which feeds on knowledge. The last time it was proposed was in 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain. Thanks to a brilliant speech by A.P. Herbert (‘Would you put a tax on the word of God and the Prayer Book, too?’), it was rejected with contempt.

To move to another aspect of the subject, consider the train of events over the last two years which began with the BBC’s proposal to screen the television documentary Real Lives, on Northern Ireland. The Government sought to ban it. The BBC resisted. The Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, was forced to intervene publicly, applying a power that had virtually atrophied from lack of use. This caused a strike at the BBC, and outrage both at home and abroad. It did immense damage to the most important international asset we have – a broadcasting system which has been seen by the world at large as independent, impartial, free from government control. The reaction then, and the stand taken by the BBC, succeeded in reversing the ban. Eighteen months later came Zircon. No Home Secretary’s letter was needed. The BBC itself banned the film. Throughout the intervening period, a time when the licence fee was up for consideration, the BBC had come under continuous attack, an attack led by Norman Tebbit over the Libyan bombing coverage among other matters. More recently, the BBC precipitately withdrew a programme on Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher. Self-censorship has replaced censorship from outside – where the issues at least tend to become known. Self-censorship operates in the dark. Self-censorship also signals a loss of political courage, and lowers the threshold of future intervention. And as the BBC withdrew its programme, the Government was already taking the book itself to the courts, where it has been engaged in the protracted farce of its attempts to suppress a work freely available all over the world.

Lord Bridge: Is it right that the injunctions the Government seeks would not keep the secrets from anyone?

Mr Mummery (for the Attorney-General): No, they won’t.

Lord Bridge: So the purpose of the injunctions is purely punitive and deterrent?

Mr Mummery: It’s a combination of deterring other people and preventing a further loss of confidence in the British Secret Service.

Lord Bridge: I find it difficult to see what further damage to that confidence can be done!

The farce has turned sour. Even at the expense of making itself ludicrous throughout the world, this government is willing to push its censorship case to the limit. Only by a hair’s breadth were the Law Lords prevented from placing a ban on the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings. One recalls that the freedom of Hansard was perhaps the biggest single item relating parliamentary democracy to popular democracy.

The time has come to mount a campaign in defence of the word, written or broadcast. During the Edinburgh Festival, there were two conferences on Glasnost. One involved a high-powered Soviet delegation, including the Deputy Minister of Culture, the editor of Novy Mir and, inevitably, Yevtushenko. The other, ‘Glasnost in Britain?’, arose directly from the first. As one delegate said, ‘here we were, all happily discussing the shades going up in the Soviet Union, while at the same time, with Real Lives, Zircon and Spycatcher they seemed to be coming down all over Britain.’ Sir Kenneth Alexander, Chancellor of Aberdeen University, gave a sombre account of the effect of govenment cuts on the development of academic thought, while Jim Thomson, a headmaster, said that the following day, the opening of the school term in Scotland, he anticipated that, for the first time ever, he would have to put in a nil order for new books because of the squeeze on resources. The conference was subtitled ‘Against Censorship and in Defence of the Word’. By a happy error, this appeared on the posters as ‘and in Defence of the World’.