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What “freedom of the press” should mean

The new pamphleteers.

A bas-relief (c. 1450) of the German printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg checking his work while his assistant turns the press. Photo: Getty Images

The phrase “freedom of the press” is perhaps so familiar that its historical origin, and its possible meanings, can be overlooked. 

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards”; the very sort of people who we imagine once upon a time wore “press hats”, were inspired by Scoop, and regularly gossiped and drank at El Vinos. 

Here, the “freedom of the press” is the general right of the gentlemen and ladies of the Fourth Estate to do as they wish without impediment.

But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s.  The actual formulation seems to have been first used in the 1660s, although the concept was promoted emphatically a couple of decades before by John Milton in his Areopagitica of 1644.

So when the term was first deployed it was not a label for the privileges of any big “P” Press consisting of a professional journalistic class working on a finite number of publications, for such a class of people did not then exist.  It would appear to have had a more straightforward meaning: it described the general right of every person to have access to and make use of (literally) a press so as to publish to the world at large, without the intervention of licensors or censors. 

In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

And this general freedom was crucial.  Before the rise of newspapers, and long before the extensions of the franchise and the existence of telecommunications and broadcast media, any right to free expression would have had little effect if all what one said or wrote was limited to being received by those around you and your correspondents.  The ability to physically mass publish material was the key means by which wider circulation could be gained for a contribution on a matter of general importance.

If “freedom of the press” is taken with this meaning then its application to internet-based communication is obvious.  Computers, mobile telephones, and tablets have replaced presses as the means by which any person can publish their opinions to the world and assert unwelcome facts in the face of the powerful.  Accordingly, blogging and tweeting are more akin to pamphleteering than newspaper reporting.  And like pamphleteers, bloggers and tweeters are fully subject to the perils of the law of the land but not to any sector-specific regulatory code. 

Sometimes one hears politicians and others talk of “regulating blogging” as if just by saying it makes it a practical possibility.  However, any attempt to license blogging is as inherently absurd and likely to be as futile as an attempt to license pamphleteers; the whole point is that anyone can go off and produce a pamphlet just as anyone can now write on the internet and seek the public’s attention.  This does not mean that the blogger is free from the laws relating to, say, libel or copyright; but it does mean that, subject to the general law, they can publish and even broadcast on the internet as they please.  It is this ability for anyone to publish which may now be a better meaning of “freedom of the press”.

For, as Nick Cohen has recently argued, we are all journalists now.

 

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and the author of the Jack of Kent blog.