Allan Massie: Hoping for a lock-in for the press at the Last Chance Saloon

Lord Justice Leveson. Picture: PA
Lord Justice Leveson. Picture: PA
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LORD Leveson may not venerate the ‘sacred cow’ of press freedom, but emasculating our print media would be a big mistake, writes Allan Massie

More than 20 years ago John Major’s Tory government set up the Calcutt Committee to inquire into press standards, and a junior minister, David Mellor, declared that “the press – the popular press – is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon” and called for restrictions on the “sacred cow” of press freedom. A year later the tabloids had their revenge when Mr Mellor was the subject of a kiss and tell story relating to his affair with an actress, but this is by the bye. Now, if reports are right, it seems that Lord Justice Leveson, following his investigation into the conduct of the press, is going to close the door of the Last Chance Saloon, shoot that “sacred cow”, and recommend a form of statutory regulation of the press, which will require parliament to get involved.

It is of course possible that the government will choose not to implement whatever Lord Leveson recommends. There are at least two senior ministers, William Hague and Michael Gove, who recognise that a free press – that is, one which regulates its own conduct and is not subject to political control – is a key element of a functioning democracy, and there is some evidence that David Cameron may share that opinion. So the saloon may be serving drinks for a bit longer, and the “sacred cow” may yet escape the knacker’s yard.

Nobody denies that the Leveson Inquiry, set up in a moment of panic after the revelation of phone-hacking scandals, has highlighted misdemeanours committed by some newspaper executives, editors and journalists. It has also shown that there were unhealthy and, in some cases, criminal relationships between some newspapers, the Metropolitan Police and other public officials. Police investigations into alleged wrong-doing have been pursued. Arrests have been made, and trials are pending. This is all as it should be – even if one suspects that in some cases there has been so much publicity, some generated by Leveson itself, as to make a fair trial difficult, if not impossible.

If Leveson does recommend statutory regulation of the press, many politicians will be delighted. They will have the satisfaction of obtaining revenge for the press’s exposure of their own expenses scandal. Rupert Murdoch, whom Tom Watson, a Labour member of that select committee compared to a Mafia boss, will be punished for the Sun’s decision to ditch Gordon Brown and switch support to the Conservatives before the last election. It would be a mistake to think that the attack on press freedom is altogether virtuous and high-minded – any more than sections of the press have been themselves. But you don’t need new regulation to stamp out press excesses such as phone-hacking; the criminal law, if properly applied, can take care of these.

Proposals for statutory regulation will inhibit the press, and, in relation to ordinary citizens who have been victimised by newspapers, this might not be a bad thing. It will be argued also that subjecting the press to some degree of political control is intended to curb only the excesses of the tabloids. Yet, setting aside the undeniable fact that the tabloids are called the popular press precisely because these newspapers are indeed popular, any form of political control is a step towards political censorship of the press, and it can’t be said too often or too clearly that a press free from such political control is a necessary check on the behaviour of government and parliament. Freedom is always in danger from politicians, and when the press holds the politicians to account, it acts in the interest of all citizens.

Of course, most of the tabloids’ bad behaviour has had nothing to do with politics or politicians. Faced with falling sales, newspapers have sought to satisfy what they believe to be the public’s insatiable appetite for stories, preferably scandalous stories, about celebrities. But once you move from self-regulation – which most people concerned with newspapers agree should probably be stricter – to external regulation by a statutory authority, you are on a slippery slope. Curtail the publication of scandalous stories about private individuals, and it will not be long before investigation of public scandals is also limited.

Yet, even if people agree that press freedom should be restricted, any proposals Leveson makes in this respect may be in one sense irrelevant. They will damage newspapers, which will please some politicians, but the newspaper industry is already in trouble, even in steep decline. The internet has seen to that. There is a free flow of information and opinion on the web, and the only essential difference between what is published there and what appears in newspapers is that newspapers are far more scrupulous and have a greater sense of responsibility to the truth. A statutory authority may control what is published in the printed press, but it will not be able to control what appears on the web. Even the Chinese Communist Party can’t do that. If, as a result of regulation, newspapers become more timid and duller, they will lose readers to the internet even more quickly than they are doing now.

I am among the optimists who believe that traditional newspapers still have a future, because they provide a service which is desirable, and which the amateur journalism of the web can’t match. But I have little doubt that if the freedom of the professional press is restricted, newspapers will suffer as more and more readers migrate to the irresponsible and unreliable journalism available in unregulated cyberspace.

Emasculate the press by regulation, and it will be inhibited from responsible investigation and criticism of government. This would be bad news for democracy. Whatever their faults, newspapers are for the people and against overweening government. Some say the press has had too much power. Looking at the state of our public life, I would say it hasn’t had power enough. But, if hints as to the Leveson proposals are right, it will have less power in the future, and the only gainers will be the politicians.