Freedom does not want for foes in this illiberal age, and freedom of the Press is especially blessed with enemies.
It may be our ancient right, replicated in constitutions the world over, but of late it has fallen out of favour in Britain. Error has been exploited and demagogues have fed heartily on the troubles of journalism.
Some of the most egregious are up to something – and I think you have a right to know about it. On Wednesday, MPs vote on the Data Protection Bill. Two MPs want to hijack the Bill and sneak through a draconian crackdown on Press freedom.
Tom Watson has moved an amendment to impose punitive legal costs on newspapers, forcing them to cover the costs of every person who brings a claim against them – even if the story is found to be accurate. Heads they win, tails we lose.
Mr Watson’s amendment is designed to punish publishers who favour voluntary rather than statutory regulation, yet the only state-approved regulator, Impress, is bankrolled by Max Mosley through a family trust and shunned by all serious editors.
Industry experts estimate that newspapers will have to stump up £15,000 for every baseless claim brought. Watson’s Windfall will make some very rich lawyers even richer, but achieve little else.
This financial hobbling will not affect the local Press, MPs have been told. They have been misled. Roughly 85 per cent of local titles will be hit and, given the economics of that sector, some may go to the wall. Do MPs want that on their voting record – or their conscience?
Nationalist MPs have been told it will not affect Scotland. They have been misled. Most Scottish titles are part of larger media groups and will share in the budget cuts, redundancies and possible closures to which this law will lead.
John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, says: ‘I would urge anyone who values freedom of speech to contact their MP today and urge them to vote against deeply undemocratic proposals.’
Another amendment, from Ed Miliband, would foist a second Leveson Inquiry on us. The first one lasted a year and cost taxpayers £5.4million. Anyone who thinks the Press has not changed since then has not been paying attention.
I became a journalist five years before Leveson. It’s just over five years since the report was published. These feel like two different worlds now. The News of the World, where I began as a junior reporter, was summarily shuttered and I watched as colleagues – good hacks, every one – were tossed on the dole queue.
They had not hacked anyone’s phone. They had been too busy going undercover to unmask criminal gangs, revealing MRSA-ridden hospitals and exposing institutional abuse of vulnerable people. They paid for others’ wrongdoing.
There is now a tougher regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, headed by a former judge, and empowered to fine newspapers up to £1million for stepping out of line.
Moreover, the 15 biggest-selling titles are signing up to compulsory arbitration, making it easier for those genuinely mistreated by the Press to get justice. Instead of the rich man’s roulette that is the courts, the cost of bringing a claim will be capped at £100.
If Watson and Miliband’s amendments pass on Wednesday, their effect will not be chilling so much as Arctic. One by one, newspapers will be cowed. Editors will avoid exposés about the rich and powerful – and it will not have escaped your notice that the rich and powerful are usually the ones up to no good.
Whistleblowers with scandals to reveal will be turned away. Sorry, too expensive. Finance departments will veto stories likely to attract claims and risk-taking will be banished.
One of this paper’s finest front pages depicted five white men who walked free after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The headline read: ‘Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us.’ They never did, and so far two have been convicted of the crime. I doubt if the paper would be able to run such a splash under the Watson regime.
I openly confess my bias. Newspapers are in the blood with me. My parents are paper-readers and so I’m a paper-reader. As a wee boy, I would inveigle my way under dad’s arm to peer at the inky civil war between words and pictures waged daily in the Guardian and, on the days when the newsagent had run out, the crisper, more colourful Daily Mail. (Dad is slightly to the Left of Ho Chi Minh but would rather take a title he disagrees with than not buy a paper.)
I can still describe in intimidate detail the Daily Record front page that confronted a stomach-sick, ten-year-old me on the morning after the Dunblane massacre. En route to my first day at university, I picked up the Herald and decided it would be my paper from then on – until I started to scandalise my professors by bringing the Mail to lectures.
I demarcate periods in my life according to what paper I read at the time. The industry has changed beyond all recognition over those years. Colour came, hot metal went. The broadsheets shrank to tabloid but called themselves ‘compact’. The drinking culture is largely gone – too many broken marriages, too many funerals. Budgets are tighter than a… simile you can no longer use in a newsroom.
One thing has remained: our tradition of a brash, partisan Press that harries the powerful in the service of readers. Britons understand this landscape. Those who lean Left pick up the Mirror for its jeremiads against Tory perfidy, while conservative readers take the Mail for its doughty defence of Middle Britain and scepticism towards the new, the modern and the faddish.
It’s what makes our papers lively, mischievous and bursting with pluck. The powerful don’t like newspapers full of pluck. They like them full of press releases. So even if you don’t share my romantic attachment to page leads, wings and nibs, you should still oppose these amendments.
Freedom of the Press matters because your right to know matters.
Without a free Press, you wouldn’t know Tom Watson and a fellow MP spent £100,000 on a London flat, later claiming a 50 per cent share of legal costs and fees on expenses.
Without a free Press, you wouldn’t know Max Mosley once published a by-election leaflet claiming ‘coloured immigration threatens your children’s health’.
And you wouldn’t know Mr Mosley has given more than £500,000 to Mr Watson in donations.
You have a right to know these things and we have a right to print them. If either of those statements ceases to be true, we will no longer have a free Press.
Some journalists have behaved callously, some criminally. Just ask the people of Liverpool or the parents of Milly Dowler. Maybe we’re not sympathetic figures. Maybe we’ve brought some of the cynicism on ourselves. But here’s what we’re up against: declining advertising revenues, ageing readerships, fake news, censorship, the mega-rich and their SWAT teams of solicitors, and a new populism feeding on anti-media paranoia.
There is only so much we can do and sticking us with the bill for everyone who wants to have a pop at us deprives us of time and resources to do our jobs.
Where the state regulates the Press, the Press cannot fully scrutinise the state. Since this Government came to power, the UK has dropped from 19 to 40 in the Reporters without Borders’ Press freedom index. We now rank below Suriname, whose president is on trial for killing five journalists. Do we want to go lower still, because that is where we are heading?
If we lose our free Press, we won’t know how much we regret it because there’ll be so much we won’t know. The papers that wee boys of the future read over dad’s shoulder will be tamer and emptier. The venal, the wicked, the cruel and the corrupt will sleep easier at night.
Tell your MP you don’t want that kind of world. Tell them personal spite has no place on our statute books. Tell them to vote No on Wednesday.