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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.