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We don’t have to love the media to want to protect its liberties

Conservative MP Dominic Raab has some good sense on the case against regulating the press here. (Again, non-UK readers should be aware that they might not be able to read this in full). Excerpt:

On Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson will report on press standards. If, as Churchill declared, “a free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize” then statutory regulation is an insidious sedative that threatens our democracy. We take for granted investigative journalism that speaks truth to power – from the exposé of Stephen Lawrence’s killers to the revelation of MPs’ expenses. But, look to France to see what a state-regulated press means. It left Dominique Strauss-Kahn to walk through the raindrops to the cusp of the presidency, despite a string of ugly reports of sexual violence. It allowed Jacques Barrot to be appointed European Commissioner, despite a conviction for embezzlement masked by law. From Hungary to Russia, regulating journalists has inevitably stifled media freedoms.

Sometimes I overcome my squeamishness and read the comment sections on pieces like this. Here, below the article above, is an example from a guy called Keith Meldrum of why I sometimes wonder whether I should regard some of my fellow Brits with pity or contempt:

“It appears that 80% of the British public want greater press regulation. That 80% still holds with readers of the Telegraph and Daily Mail. The complaints of journalists and newspapers that they are sorry and they will not do it again remind me of my children. Although I’m sure the protestations are sincere, I find them hard to believe.”

Well no doubt Mr Meldrum can assume what he likes, but I notice no horror here from him as to the fact that such a high percentage of the UK public are fine and dandy with taking this country back 300+ years in terms of freedom of the press. I guess he regards such ideas as “hopelessly out of date”, rather as how former UK prime minister Tony Blair, in a disgusting speech a few years ago, referred to a concern for such “19th Century values” as the presumption of innocence in criminal cases, habeas corpus, respect for privacy, and so on.

And then there is this creature, by the name of “Celtictaff”:

“What’s so special about the press, they have always worked hand in glove with politicians. The people of Britain don’t have free speech, that freedom has been slowly eroded for years. There are subjects that affect the very future and stability of our country, which are far too anti-diversity and PC to even discuss, our country is being stolen from us, and we are not allowed even a whimper of protest. Couple that with the constant barage of propaganda from the MSM. The press deserve all they get.”

In other words, because the MSM have behaved like berks at times – and they have – we won’t be missing much if the media are regulated like doctors or whatever. Great. This is classic dog-in-the-manger thinking: Other people don’t have liberty, so why should you? This is dangerously short-sighted and foolish. The proper response, of course, is to demand equality before the law and repeal the current restrictions of freedom of speech that now exist, by copying the US First Amendment and enforcing it.

Instead, like bitter, sad people in despair, we lash out at a decent argument for free speech because of the imperfections of this world. It is a classic case of the best being the enemy of the good. We are not going to achieve a perfectly free society soon, but let’s surely fight to protect what liberties are left.

And remember, as the playwright Tom Stoppard said some years ago, you can tell we have a free press in this country because of the amount of crap that gets printed. Inevitably, a lot of what we read and see in the press and TV will be mediocre at best, or sensationalist rubbish, at worst. But that no more invalidates media freedom than it would justify state regulation of party clothing on a Saturday night because most Britons have the style sense of a toad. The point is that a free press, unshackled by the chilling effects of regulation, has the potential to do good and useful things.

Of course, when the UK media is so dominated in the terrestrial broadcasting sense by a state-financed broadcaster such as the BBC, any idea that we operate a full free market in media and broadcasting needs to be hedged with a bit of a qualification anyway.

An organisation that ought to be regarded with suspicion is the National Union of Journalists, which says that regulation of the media is okay. The NUJ must surely know that the next, almost inevitable step would be state licencing of journalists, something that the NUJ, no doubt keen to enforce a closed shop on journalism, would see as bolstering its power.

Finally, if the letter-writers to the DT and other places think the media needs to be regulated by the sort of people who have done such a splendid job regulating financial services, for example, then they might want to emigrate to a place more to their liking, such as North Korea. Or maybe they should choose France, which operates under a draconian privacy law as Raab points out. Given that many French people are fleeing France due to its high taxes, though, there may not be many takers for this idea, however delightful that country is in many other respects.

15 comments to We don’t have to love the media to want to protect its liberties

  • Alisa

    Very well said.

  • Johnnydub

    What ordinary people need to realise is that this is all about power.

    In the same way that the Political class love the EU, as it removes the element of wining elections from gaining power & well remunerated positions, then the press is the obvious next step.

    If the state had the power to regulate the press, would we have heard about any of the major scandals of the last twenty years?

    This is how modern totalitarianism works; one small step at a time.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I like to point out that the US Supreme Court’s decision in Heller, allowing prior licensing of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to keep and bear arms, applies equally well to freedom of the press.

    (I’d dearly love to see someone start a movement to license journalists: it wouldn’t and shouldn’t succeed, but the arguments ‘against’ in the gun-control favoring liberal press would be amusing.)

    But my point at the moment is that there is now no bar in US law to licensing journalists.

  • MakajazMonkee

    Colour me befuddled. Don’t the regulations already exist? There’s presumably a law against hacking phones, bribing cops and police accepting bribes. Thats the main things that went on at NOW. What more is needed? What could they propose that would further reduce those things from happening?

  • Alisa

    I’d dearly love to see someone start a movement to license journalists: it wouldn’t and shouldn’t succeed, but the arguments ‘against’ in the gun-control favoring liberal press would be amusing.

    I may be missing your point, PFP, but I don’t think that we’d see arguments against. Not only that, but quite the contrary is much more likely.

  • llamas

    State control of the media? What could possibly go wrong?



  • RAB

    For my sins, I am a member of the NUJ. I spent 5 mind numbingly boring evenings down at my local Chapel to get my card. There was a motion passed at one that extended our fraternal greetings and a small cheque to some Sandinista support group or other (so you can see how long ago that was). Absolutely no bias in the card carrying Press though, perish the thought!

    The Brothers would dearly love to make membership of the NUJ compulsory and regulated by them… Springtime for Guardianistas and Tyranny.

  • Cyclefree

    Excellent article. In the end it’s not about freedom of the press but about OUR freedom, to think what we want, to say what we want and to find out those things which those in power and/or with an inflated sense of their own importance (aka celebrities) don’t want us to know.

    Judges are no respectors of our freedoms: they have after all developed the insidious super-injunction. If state regulation comes in after tomorrow, it will be because we have a judge who does not understand why free speech and press freedome are the foundation stone of all our other freedoms, a Tory leader who is scared of his links with Rebecca Brooks and others, a Liberal Democrat party which does not understand liberalism and a Labour party which believes in state control and sees this as an opportunity to get Murdoch. And venal MPs on all sides will see it as revenge for what the press exposed about their defrauding the taxpayer.

    Poor us.

  • Saxon

    Well said, JP. Intellectually I agree with the argument.

    But please give the Celtictaff creature a break. While my mind says you are right, my heart – in bitter moments when thinking of what the “free press” does to support the leftists in the US – wants to show them a taste of their own medicine.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I may be missing your point, PFP, but I don’t think that we’d see arguments against. Not only that, but quite the contrary is much more likely.
    Posted by Alisa at November 28, 2012 03:44 PM

    Point taken. But I imagine if the movement started on the right, the leftist world could be relied on to recoil in horror – or at least well-bred disdain – forestalling the MSM from adopting the idea. The ‘proposal’ is, at any rate, mere whimsy.

  • Schrodinger's Dog


    You wrote: “This is how modern totalitarianism works; one small step at a time.”

    I nominate it for the Samizdata Quote of the Day.

    Absolutely spot-on. Lenin and his chums tried to impose the revolution all at once, and quite possibly failed because of it.

    By contrast, modern totalitarians move much more stealthily. Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the history of gun control in the UK. A series of “sensible measures” gradually led to all handguns being banned and the ownership of rifles and shotguns being very severely curtailed.

    To anybody who supports some restriction, no matter how seemingly benign, my response is always the same: “There’s always next time.”

  • Paul Marks

    It is indeed illegal to “hack” telephones and to pry into other people’s bank accounts.

    However, the BBC (and so on) do not care much when Mirror group people do it – and they actually think it is a good thing when their Comrades as the “Guardian” newspaper do such things.

    The campaign is about hitting News International.

    Partly a British thing – but mostly (oddly enough) as a American thing. With the Guardian/BBC acting for their fellow leftists in the United States.

    In Britain there is the Daily Telegraph, and the Mail and the Express…..

    In the United States the only real opposition to the left (in either newspapers or television) is News International – i.e. the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

    Get rid of Rupert Murdoch and you get rid of Rodger A. – get rid of him, and it is (basically) over. The left will have a monopoly of television and print in the United States.

    Ending press freedom in Britain is a small price to pay for this to be achieved.

    Indeed not a price at all – as the BBC/Guardian (and so on) does not believe in press freedom anyway.

  • nemesis

    Johnnydub ‘What ordinary people need to realise is that this is all about power.’

    “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.”
    Adolf Hitler

  • Alisa

    The problem is, they will outlaw almost everything while enforcing very little. Imprisonment by stealth. People will not know they are encircled until it is too late – like putting in all these very deep, robust fence-posts with no fence panels. All seems open. One day you will wake up and the panels are in, you are trapped and they can decide what law they wish to impose to nail whomsoever they desire.

  • Paul Marks

    TimC’s words remind me of Ayn Rand.

    Truth is said by many people -if we manage to say something that is true we should expect others have said it before us.

    In this case the idea that state would make virtually everything a crime (as it is – under such things as Dodd-Frank and so many other “enabling” statutes) on the understanding that it would not enforce it.

    Of course the rulers can any of their regulations, at any time, against anyone (even against people who have helped their rise to power….).

    The trap is already constructed – it just needs to be sprung……

    Of course why should anyone believe Ayn Rand – she was just “Zionist scum” (I read those words in a comment today – in a thread trying to divide libertarians from Randian Objectivists).

    Our rulers are wise and noble “libertarian paternalists” (yes Cas Sustein, and the rest, actually use oxymorons like that) who just wish to protect us “Homer Simpsons” from wicked corporate big business…..