New Regulations Threaten Freedom of the Press in UK

All sides claimed victory following the deal, with the left claiming they'd got the tough regulation they wanted, while Cameron and the Tories insisted that they'd prevented Labour and its allies getting their way. The obscure nature of the charter mechanism means no one is sure exactly how the system will work in practice; it seems that, like Obamacare, we'll have to pass the law to find out what's in it, and unintended consequences are sure to abound.

Among other things, it is not clear if the regulator’s remit will extend to internet news providers that aren't owned by print newspapers, or to blogs or social media. If it does extend to social media, we can at least enjoy the incongruity of Twitter being regulated by a document that was first employed in 1066, and which will be issued on behalf of an 87 year old and includes the words "ye" and "especial."

But what is clear is that, the politicians’ assurances notwithstanding, the proposed charter does indeed constitute state regulation. It’s hard to claim that an industry is being allowed to regulate itself when its proposals for doing so are dismissed by politicians in favor of those politicians’ own proposals, drawn up in conjunction with a politically motivated pressure group and with no input from the industry.

While the newspapers and their few supporters in Westminster (which include a couple of principled Labour MPs as well as several Tories) accept that the current system of self-regulation is inadequate, they point out there’s no need for "legal underpinning" when there are already laws in place to deal with phone hacking (61 journalists have been arrested over that scandal), libel, and harassment. Meanwhile some legal experts have claimed that the proposed statutory measures would violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression.

The royal charter is set to be approved by the Privy Council, the body of senior politicians that advises the sovereign, on Wednesday October 30th.  It’s not clear, though, what will happen if the newspaper industry as a whole simply refuses to sign up to the new regulatory system, making it unworkable from the start, and establishes its own body. And it would be interesting to see which, if any, politicians would be prepared to declare war on the press in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

Britain’s newspapers certainly don’t make it easy for anyone who would be inclined to defend them. They’ve been guilty of outrageous behavior over the years, while being quick to claim that the freedoms they regularly abuse must be maintained if they’re to hold the powerful to account. The problem with the press is one of culture rather than law, and it can reasonably be argued that Britain has the newspapers its citizens both want and deserve -- sometimes grubby, sometimes heroic, but never boring.

If the proposed regulation comes into force, it will be a huge victory for Labour, Hacked Off, and the BBC, which shares their left-wing sympathies, and which also dominates television, radio, and internet news provision in Britain, and would love to see its ideological and business competitors hobbled. It was the BBC that spearheaded the recent hysteria over the Daily Mail’s attack on Ed Miliband’s communist-sympathizer father, whom PJM’s Ron Radosh wrote about. It’s not hard to see how the left could game the proposed regulatory system in the event of a similar case, orchestrating a campaign of "spontaneous" public outrage that would pressure the regulator to punish the offending paper.

The modern left hates the idea of a free press, and of free speech in general, because it knows that in a free exchange of ideas it will always lose. Leftists fantasize about a press controlled by journalism professors, lawyers and other members of the great and the good, who would ensure the public was "educated" with a non-stop diet of stories about racism, inequality, global warming and third-world poverty, and despise the celebrity-worshiping and crime-obsessed majority of the British public that doesn’t share their politics or their good taste.

But state regulation will also be a victory for the political classes as a whole, including nominally conservative politicians, whose aims increasingly coincide with the those of the statist left: the carving out of special privileges, and the transfer of power to themselves and away from the people; such goals are difficult to achieve in an environment of transparency and free speech. A left-wing crackdown on the freedoms of its political opponents is to be entirely expected, but it’s a shameful reflection on the state of conservatism in Britain that so many Tory MPs are happy to collude in it.

Americans will point to the First Amendment to insist that "it couldn’t happen here," and it probably won’t, so long as the country’s most influential newspapers hew to the liberal-left line. However, the left makes no attempt to hide its contempt for the Constitution, and more than one Democrat has raised the prospect of reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine to silence conservative talk radio, while Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Dick Durbin think politicians should be able to decide who's a journalist and who isn’t. If Britain throws away 300 years of press freedom on a whim, the American left will be casting envious glances across the Atlantic.