Statutory regulation of the press will hurt free speech

Self-regulation is the only way to ensure that journalist don't end up with less of a right to free expression than anyone else.

Between the Leveson Inquiry and the crisis at the BBC, it seems journalism is all we ever read or hear about these days.

These crises are heightened because journalists are, essentially, gossips who like talking about journalists. In this, we’re no different from people in any other line of work: programmers talk about other people’s code, plumbers slag rivals’ work - it’s human.

Note I wrote “line of work” rather than profession. That’s because it is very, very important to remember that journalism is not and cannot ever be a profession.

This is at the very heart of the debate over what Lord Justice Leveson should conclude from his findings when he reports in the coming weeks. Can you legally force journalists to behave in a certain way without damaging free expression?

Some point to regulatory bodies such as the Law Society or the General Medical Council, and say that regulation does not affect those professions. But think. One can strike off a doctor or a lawyer - how does one strike off a journalist? Sure, you can sack her, but what if she starts a blog? Starts making phone calls? Starts covering stories?

How do you stop people doing journalism? The old distinction will become ever more blurred as we all now carry publishing apparatus in our pocket. Journalists in the traditional sense had desks, telephones, expense accounts and bad habits. But most importantly, access to a printing press and means of distribution. A decent smartphone carries all this in one (apart from the expenses and habits).

Journalism is one way in which people can exercise their right to free expression, and the danger with statutory regulation is that one can actually create separate levels of access to a right - giving the journalist less of a right to free expression than anyone else. That’s not how rights work.

Some will point out that there are many “statutes” that apply to journalists, and this is true, but these statutes - contempt, libel etc, do not apply just to journalists - they are universal.

Creating a new law governing the press compromises that universality.

Many point to the “Irish model” as an example of statutory underpinning. But this is not entirely correct. The Press Council of Ireland was already established before it was recognised in statute, and then only with membership as a mitigating factor in a libel defence. It was not established by statute. (Bear in mind, by the way, Leveson watchers, that it took five years of negotiation to set up the Irish Press Council. This may go on for some time.)

Meanwhile, Germany (in terms of market size, possibly a better example for the UK) does not even permit specific laws on the press.

A press regulator cannot carry legal compulsion. Politicians already try their hardest to influence newspapers, and allowing them to create statute that will rule over the press will almost inevitably prove too tempting for a parliamentarians fed up of their eternal role as lamposts to the press’s dogs (as HL Mencken had it). Statute specifically dealing with the press will hurt free speech, no matter how much its advocates say it won’t.

Politicians already try their hardest to influence newspapers. Photograph: Getty Images
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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

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.