Civil Liberties

As British Journalists Prepare for Censorship Scheme, Some Vow Defiance

It was an American politician, Rahm Emanuel, who said, "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste."


It was an American politician, Rahm Emanuel, who said, "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste." But that's a world-wide sentiment for wielders of political power who see anything that can be tagged as a crisis as a wonderful opportunity to expand their personal fiefdoms. In Britain, the Leveson Inquiry has been investigating the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that killed the once-widely read News of the World, further spurred by more-recent sex-abuse revelations at the BBC. With the Leveson report due tomorrow, the British media is already girding itself for an expected call for statutory regulation of the press, and a welcome reception for the same from government officials. At least one publication, the conservative Spectator, is preemptively announcing its refusal to cooperate with regulators.

That British politicos are champing at the bit for more power over the journalists who scrutinize their action is apparent. Australia's ABC News quotes the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, as calling the Leveson Inquiry, "a once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change and I hope that this House can make it happen." Representing the three major parties, a group of lawmakers with at least a vestigial affection for free speech and personal knowledge that their position is far from universal co-penned a letter protesting, "[s]tatutory regulation would require the imposition of state licensing – abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution."

It's worth pointing out that the end of press-licensing was won only after a hard-fought battle. A half-century earlier, John Milton had written his ground-breaking Areopagitica in which he said, "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Milton was dead and in the ground twenty years before his vision came to pass.

Not trusting to Milton, or to those members of Parliament who might still value his words, The Spectator promises:

If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

Honestly, in the Internet age, press licensing is a losing scheme anyway. Established newspapers and magazines with printing presses and street addresses might be vulnerable but, as parliamentarian Dominic Raab warns in the London Daily Telegraph, "The global proliferation of blogs and social media would render such sanctions obsolete. Many sites would relish the chance to flout the rules that silenced Fleet Street."

With our First Amendment, and the respect generally accorded the same even by judges whose copies of the Constitution often seem heavily abridged, Americans are relatively insulated from concerns about overt press censorship. That may be for the best. I'd hate to see American journalists put to the test to see if they have sufficient backbone to tell would-be government overseers to go to hell.