What “freedom of the press” should mean

The new pamphleteers.

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.

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

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

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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