#FreeThePress: reject Section 40, champion gossip and smash the new Star Chamber
Hacked Off can call on Steve Coogan (“Press freedom is a lie peddled by proprietors and editors who only care about profit”) and free speech extremists can summon day time telly’s Judge Rinder (first name on application).
Writing in the Sun, Rinder says the country’s greatest freedom is “to say what you want”. You might suppose this is obvious, that freedom of expression is not under threat in a modern country like the UK. If you think that, you’re wrong.
Just look at the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Elveden, the investigation into tabloid newspapers allegedly paying public employees for information. Mick Hume explains the perversity of how journalists doing their jobs became suspected criminals. Countries where truth dies on the vine might care to make notes:
To pursue Elveden, the UK authorities effectively made up a law specifically aimed at journalists – something the Turkish and Egyptian states might be wary of doing. Prosecutors dusted off a thirteenth-century common law which made ‘misconduct in public office’ a crime. Then they gave it a modern twist by adding on the previously unheard-of offence of ‘conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office’, which allowed them to prosecute journalists who are not public employees at all.
Rinder recalls his grandfather, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. Stood at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, Judge’s grandfather heard one speaker giving full throat to his anti-Semitism. “You see,” he says. “In this county, even this man can say whatever he wants and nobody can stop him.”
Free speech is the right to hear what you don’t want to hear. It is the right to offend and to be offended.
And so Rinder turns to Section 40 and the drive for a Press no longer free but regulated under the Government’s Royal Charter. What business is it of the State’s to police anyone says in print or pixels? None. But they want it to be.
Section 40 demands newspapers sign up to a Press watchdog supported by statute. Failure to sign up to the official censor means publications will have to pay the costs of anyone who brings a civil suit, libel or privacy actions against them – even if they win their case. Be targeted by a vexatious campaign and watch your organ die.
Is that an incentive to sign up to the Royal Charter-backed press regulator? No. It’s a threat. Join Impress, the Max Mosley-funded press regulator, or else they’ll cut your tongue out and chop your fingers off. Whatever the jury decides, you will be found guilty.
How can a journalist function in such a climate?
The Mirror takes up the cry. Jason Beattie looks at the “Attack On Press Freedom”. He says a free press is the “rampart between the defenceless and the bullies, the bad and the powerful”. If the State gets its way you paper will become “no better than a council free-sheet”. You will only read what the rich and powerful want you to read. He reminds readers that the State’s pet press watchdog, Impress, is “ultimately governed by Royal Charter, which in turn is overseen by politicians on the Privy Council”.
The Privy Council’s oath contains one line all members must utter: “You will keep secret all Matters committed unto you.” There are about 600 privy counsellors, including all former prime ministers, cabinet ministers, leaders of the opposition, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the current and former Speakers of the House of Commons, Archbishops, senior Bishops, senior courtiers, senior backbenchers and senior judges. Here is a full list of people that if the censorious win will rule on what you can and cannot say.
Of course, it won’t matter who sits in this reworked Star Chamber if Section 40 is passed – you’ll be mute and impoverished before the throttlers sit down for lunch at Buckingham Palace.
The Right To Gossip
Both Beattie and Rinder cite high examples of how a free Press have caused upset, exposing paedophiles, Lance Armstrong’s cheating and politicians fiddling on their expenses. All wonderful and worthy work. But I’d go for something else that epitomises free speech: tittle-tattle. If you like poking fun, lampooning and gossip and all that stuff that entertains, you enjoy free speech.
The censors dismiss it as the stuff of the ‘gutter press’. Well, to muck rake you need to look in the ugly places. But if the censors have their way, you’ll only ever see shiny, clean things covered in a fresh layer of paint – you won’t get close enough to pick up the stink and scratch off the veneer to see what lurks beneath.
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