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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Andy Burnham quits shadow cabinet: "Let's end divisive talk of deselections"

The shadow home secretary reflected on a "profoundly sad" year. 

Andy Burnham will leave the shadow cabinet in the reshuffle to focus on his bid to become Manchester's metro mayor in 2017. 

In his swansong as shadow home secretary, Burnham said serving Labour had been a privilege but certain moments over the last 12 months had made him "profoundly sad".

He said:

"This is my tenth Conference speaking to you as a Cabinet or shadow cabinet minister.

"And it will be my last.

"It is time for me to turn my full focus to Greater Manchester. 

"That's why I can tell you all first today that I have asked Jeremy to plan a new shadow cabinet without me, although I will of course stay until it is in place."

Burnham devoted a large part of his speech to reflecting on the Hillsborough campaign, in which he played a major part, and the more recent campaign to find out the truth of the clash between police and miners at Orgreave in 1984.

He defended his record in the party, saying he had not inconsistent, but loyal to each Labour leader in turn. 

Burnham ran in the 2015 Labour leadership election as a soft left candidate, but found himself outflanked by Jeremy Corbyn on the left. 

He was one of the few shadow cabinet ministers not to resign in the wake of Brexit.

Burnham spoke of his sadness over the turbulent last year: He was, he said:

"Sad to hear the achievements of our Labour Government, in which I was proud to serve, being dismissed as if they were nothing.

"Sad that old friendships have been strained; 

"Sad that some seem to prefer fighting each other than the Tories."

He called for Labour to unite and end "divisive talk about deselections" while respecting the democratic will of members.

On the controversial debate of Brexit, and controls on immigration, he criticised Theresa May for her uncompromising stance, and he described Britain during the refugee crisis as appearing to be "wrapped up in its own selfish little world".

But he added that voters do not want the status quo:

"Labour voters in constituencies like mine are not narrow-minded, nor xenophobic, as some would say. 

"They are warm and giving. Their parents and grandparents welcomed thousands of Ukrainians and Poles to Leigh after the Second World War.

"And today they continue to welcome refugees from all over the world. They have no problem with people coming here to work.

"But they do have a problem with people taking them for granted and with unlimited, unfunded, unskilled migration which damages their own living standards. 

"And they have an even bigger problem with an out-of-touch elite who don't seem to care about it."

Burnham has summed up Labour's immigration dilemma with more nuance and sensitivity than many of his colleagues. But perhaps it is easier to do so when you're leaving your job.