papers in chains

I am hacked off by politicians who think that a last-minute backroom deal is the proper way to resolve a critical political issue. Who think that a shabby compromise between two bad proposals makes a good proposal. Who imagine that imposing exemplary damages on those who refuse to sign up to a regulatory quango creates a freer press.

I’m hacked off by campaigners who have so little respect for free speech that they are happy to use legislation to reform libel laws as a bargaining ploy merely to get their own way on their pet project. Who cannot tell the difference between achieving justice for victims and insisting that victims must dictate legislation. Who are so dismissive of public debate that they think ‘no serious person’ disagrees with them.

I’m hacked off by liberals who who seem think that ‘it won’t turn Britain into Zimbabwe’ is sufficient reason to accept press regulation. Who seem unable to distinguish between a good press and an unfree press, or understand why it’s better to have a ‘bad’ free press than a ‘good’ unfree press. Whose pusillanimity has allowed the Murdochs, the Dacres and the Kavanaghs of this world to present themselves as warriors for free speech

Most of all, I am hacked off by liberals who cannot see what is illiberal about illiberal policies.


  1. Andrew

    Press will still be free. They just won’t be free to break the law as and when they choose in the equally undefined ‘public interest’. It was out of control and its PCC was a shambles. This measure at least gives its next potential victims some measure of protection.

    After a few months the press will behave as they did, but if they abide by the spirit of what is being asked for in Leveson it’ll probably save them from themselves.

    If the press want to know how it came to this it might want to look back about 30 years ago when staff photographers started walking in tot he office with these new-fangled long lens technologies and quickly put them to mis-use, starting a descent into sensationalism and invasion of privacy that led to this.

    • The press is not free to break the law now. That’s the whole point of having laws. The Royal Charter will do nothing to prevent phone hacking with which all this all began, or to protect hacking victims. Laws against phone hacking already exist. What the Charter will do is effectively set up by the back door a licensing system for the press (and for the web). In what way does imposing exemplary damages on those who refuse to sign up to a regulator (even if they win their court cases, since they will still have to pay the costs of opponents who lost) create a freer press? It is in effect levying a fine on newspapers/journalists who take a principled stand against regulation. As I have argued many times before the problem with the current debate is that it conflates two issues: that of free speech/ free press and that of a culture in which gossip and tittle tattle is taken to be news, and in which the distinction between the public and the private has become eroded. Regulating the press will not solve the cultural problem.

  2. Michelle Graham

    Well said. I was saying something similar (to anyone who would listen) a couple of years ago, but I’ve been silent recently because of the lack of nuance in the debate and the binary positions being taken on the issue.

  3. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    Works for me. I suspect most Americans don’t realize how rare is the 1st Amendment. We should pay more attention to this story.

  4. I run a small publishing company exposing dodgy dealings in leasehold residential property, for which we this week won a press award. We are not going to sign up to any government imposed regulatory scheme. If necessary, I will move the website,, to a foreign jurisdiction that either properly understands free speech, or has not restricted it.

    So we will be in the absurd position of campaigning to reform leasehold law in England and Wales from abroad.

    In February I was thrown out, as press, of Wandsworth County Court in a forfeiture case involving the £800,000 flat of a pensioner, 73, in Battersea, who had disputed £7,500 in service charges. (Bullying legal costs of the freeholder had taken the bill to an outrageous £76,000.)

    This meant a man faced losing absolutely everything he has in a court from which the public were excluded.

    As a reason for throwing me out, the barrister for the freeholder cited the Human Rights Act of the pensioner, whom he was doing his best to reduce to destitution. The barrister for the Prudential (the mortgage company) and the pensioner had no objection to my presence.

    After making a contemptible decision – to throw me out (but not mentioning HRA) – the judge made the correct one and lifted the forfeiture.

    This disgraceful process, quite routinely taken in secret, has been exposed and is being taken up in the Commons.

    Separately, twice in the last three months I have been threatened with libel proceedings – betting that legal costs will bring me to heal. Interventions by MPs threatening to raise the issues in the Commons have made them back down.

    It utterly repels me that people on the left are siding with (much of) the judiciary and politicians in restraining free expression. It is pretty restrained as it is.

    In my experience the courts are cruel and bullying (and incompetent), and they loathe the media as an independent source of authority. I am delighted that much of the Internet is beyond the scope of the British judiciary.

  5. I think it’s quite a thorny issue, this one. You are certainly right that backroom deals are an insult. But as I see it, organs which produce a high volume of content that is presumed by their readers to be accurate have a moral obligation to provide the people on whom they report access to corrective procedures prior to legal action (especially as long as libel laws remain punitively expensive). Of course, this was the point of the PCC; but it was so self-interested as to be toothless. So I don’t object to the setting up of a Royal Charter (or whatever), as long as, unlike the PCC, the make-up of its board is obliged to represent all interests, and not just those of the very organs it seeks to regulate. Equally it should be obliged to be free of overt political control; and should not be a substitute for prosecution in the case of actual illegal activity (and, as you rightly point out, many of the loud voices in the current debate are victims of illegal activity which should be beyond the scope of such a charter). I don’t think it is illiberal (is it?) for the state to create a system to which members of an industry may voluntarily join (and leave), but whilst members then be legally obliged to adhere to it.
    The question for me then is not the charter per se, but that if such a system exists and is (rightly) voluntary, what measures, if any, the state is entitled to bring to bear to encourage non-signatories to participate. I agree as well that exemplary damages are excessive illiberal; but I wonder how else the state may encourage those who wield considerable public influence to do so responsibly. Do you think the system should be dropped in its entirety, or just that the state should have no powers to encourage membership?

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