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: Getty
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Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

You can follow Cameron on Twitter here.