Civil Liberties

With Britain's Free Press on the Brink, PM Cameron Becomes an Unlikely Champion


In the United Kingdom, the Leveson Inquiry into the "culture, practice and ethics of the press" has released its long-awaited awaited report, and the result is pretty much as expected (PDF): Assurances as to the value of a free press, coupled with calls for regulation of the press backed by law. As you might expect, the report has been met with glee by most politicians — with the perhaps surprising exception of Prime Minister David Cameron.

In the House of Commons, the prime minister said:

Now I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation.

They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity.

The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.

We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.

In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.

If that sounds to you like a less-than-enthusiastic enforsement of unfettered freedom, it's still the best you're going to get from a prominent British official. Especially since Cameron has promised to resist press-regulation even if it's approved by Parliament.

Nick Clegg, Mr. Cameron's coalition partner, chose to demonstrate that there's damned little that's still liberal about his Liberal Democrats by breaking with Cameron and endorsing regulation of the press:

I have always said that I would support Lord Justice Leveson's reforms, providing they are proportionate and workable. I will come onto why – at first glance – I believe that to be the case for the report's core proposal: for a tougher system of self-regulation, supported by new, independent checks, recognised in law.

Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party which was largely responsible for turning Britain into the charming quasi-police state it is today during its years in power, endorsed the idea of press regulation even before the report was released. No surprise, he signed on whole-heartedly to its recommendations.

For its part, the British press has been remarkably subdued in its reactions, generally praising Cameron for holding the line, while engaging in a little public-self-criticism to satisfy the mob. The lefty Guardian went so far as to largely endorse the Leveson recommendations.

Of note, the weekly Spectator vows defiance of any regulatory regime, and Mick Hume at Spiked cautions:

The press is already far too unfree, hemmed in by dozens of restraining laws and by informal self-censorship. A top editor has warned of an 'ice age' for investigative journalism even before a new regulator is imposed. What we need is more diversity, boldness and troublemaking in the press. The last thing required is another policeman, state-uniformed or not, looking over the shoulders of journalists and editors.

It's easy to be smug, as an American, and rest on this country's First Amendment protections and history of relative respect for the free press. But we've had periods of state-domination of the media in this country, especially duing wartime, and most of the media complied with barely a whimper. I'm not convinced that American journalists would show more defiance than their counterparts across the Atlantic if the control freaks in D.C. sought more power over the profession that's supposed to hold them to scrutiny.

But, since we do still have somewhat firm protections for the free press in the United States, it might be worth extending that umbrella to our colleagues. Even before a new British media regulator is in place, I'd like to see American media offering to help their colleagues defy such control by publishing material online and out of reach of the U.K.'s government. A little subversive solidarity wouldn't be a bad thing.