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
Getty
Show Hide image

However Labour do on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn's still the right leader

When the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean?

Commentators have spent the last few weeks predicting exactly what will happen on Thursday and, more importantly, what the results will mean. One thing is certain: no matter what the Labour party achieves, Jeremy Corbyn’s position is safe. Not only is the membership overwhelmingly supportive of the leader, but also Blairites would be foolish to launch an attack with the European referendum just over a month away.

So whatever happens on Thursday, Jeremy Corbyn’s position will be as secure as it is at this exact moment in time. I want to go further than explaining simply why whatever happens on Thursday will not spell the end for the Labour leader by arguing why, in any case, it should not.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party with an astonishing mandate. Paid-up Labour party members, Labour supporters and Labour affiliates gave this to him. Polling consistently showed that the ability to ‘win’ elections was not the reason people voted for Jeremy. I don’t think that the Labour leader’s opponents are accurate in suggesting that this is because Labour supporters are self-confessed losers. In many ways we are the realists.

I am perfectly aware of the current political ground. The country is largely opposed to accepting more refugees. People who rely on state benefits have been stigmatised. Discrimination is rampant within our society. A majority of people are found to oppose immigration. So when the Blairites talk about winning by appealing to the country, what do they mean exactly? I’m sure that even Liz Kendall would not have mounted an election campaign that simply appealed to the way issues were seen in the polls.

Jeremy Corbyn inherited an uphill battle; he didn’t create it. Anyone who suggests so is shamelessly acting so as to discredit his leadership. Labour’s message is of equality and solidarity. Our party proudly stands as an institution that seeks to pull down the barriers that bar the less privileged from achieving. But when the nation is gripped by the fear of the ‘other’ and man has been pitted against woman in a war of all against all how can Labour’s message break through?

The answer is time. Labour needs time to rebuild and assess the situation on the ground. Labour needs time to talk to people. Labour needs time to change the frame of the debate and the misleading narrative that the Tories are proud to spout because it wins them votes. The Labour party is better than that. We have to be better than that. If we are not then what is the point in the Labour party at all?

The idea that Jeremy Corbyn could possibly change the entire narrative of the nation in 8 months is laughable. But he has started to. People have seen through the Tory lies of helping those in work get on. People have seen the government cut support for the poor while giving to the rich. At the same time they have been fed lies about the Labour leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an extremist. Jeremy Corbyn is too radical. Jeremy Corbyn is a friend of terrorists. Jeremy Corbyn wants to disband the army. Jeremy Corbyn wants to talk to ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn hates Britain. And so on.

In such an environment how is it surprising that after just 8 months Labour may not make huge gains across the country? It is likely that people will call for Jeremy to resign. When they do, ask what Andy, Liz or Yvette would have done differently. They would have needed time too.  

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.