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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.