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.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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