Free Life 18, May 1993, Sean Gabb Reviews A Parliamentary Report on Freedom and Responsibility of the Press

From Free Life, Issue 18, May 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112

 Report of Special Parliamentary Hearings
on Freedom and Responsibility of the Press

Mike Jempson (ed)
Crantock Communications, Bristol, 1993, 181 pp., £10.00

This is a "book of evidence" compiled from written and oral submissions to a Special Parliamentary Committee, assembled to consider the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill tabled by Clive Soley MP.

It is in every respect an extraordinary work. It is the first private publication of the transcript of a Parliamentary Committee and of all the evidence placed before it. It also records the first occasion on which Members of Parliament have decided to investigate the issues behind a Bill before it is debated clause by clause at its second reading.

Both these facts are to be welcomed. A private report of Parliamentary proceedings is a step in the right direction. I regret the lack of an ISBN classification: this makes the work unnecessarily hard to find. I also regret the rather amateurish printing error – "sorts" in place of "torts" – to be found in the Libertarian Alliance submission printed on page 138. But these are minor defects, and do not ruin the overall effect.

The procedural device by which the evidence reached the Parliamentary record is an excellent one. The Chairman of the Committee, Patrick Cormack MP, writes in his Preface that

[f]or some years now there has been provision for this sort of exercise to be undertaken by a standing committee before it considers a Bill clause by clause. It could surely only benefit the quality of our legislation if the process became not an option but an obligation.[p. iii]

The quality of legislation would indeed benefit greatly – though not, I suspect, because Bills would be framed with any higher regard for the public interest, but simply because more consideration for each Bill inevitably will mean fewer Bills.

The Bill itself is another matter. Any Bill which contains the words "Freedom of the Press" is to be suspected. Any Bill which contains the words "Freedom and Responsibility of the Press" may safely be denounced unread as a censor's charter.

However, I have read the Bill, and am able to supply particulars of the censorship to be imposed. Take clause 1:

There shall be a body, to be called the Independent Press Authority (the Authority), which shall –

(a) seek the presentation of news by newspapers and periodicals with due accuracy;

(b) secure the free dissemination of news and information in the public interest and the promotion of professional and ethical standards;

In pursuit of these ends, the Authority is to exercise a general power of inspection, where not of control. It is to indicate who may and may not own newspapers, and who may and may not write for them. It is to indicate which of them shall and shall not be carried by W.H. Smith and the other big distributors. It is to investigate complaints against individual publications, and its adjudications are to be enforced on application to the High Court of Justice. In short, except all powers but the last are advisory, and there is no requirement to post bonds or submit copy for approval before publication, the Bill is as entire a scheme of censorship as can be imagined.

What, after all, is a duly accurate presentation of news? It is something performed by most of our daily newspapers every day – and it has been performed in this country every day for most of the 298 years since the ending of the last State censorship. It is not perfectly performed, I allow. Indeed, there are newspapers that make money from printing lies; and this is to be deplored. But we live in an imperfect world. The best we can ever hope of our institutions is they will permit good a higher chance of prevailing than evil. This is the case, I assert, with the present market in newspapers, as constrained by the general law of the land. It would not be the case were we to shackle the press with an extensive system of State control. Such systems have been set up in many other countries. In every instance, they have transformed the press from a guardian of freedom into a timid instrument of despotism.

The advocates of this Bill have repeatedly claimed that its effect will not be to shackle the press, but will simply compel editors to correct factual errors by granting a right of reply. This is true – but not entirely accurate in a general sense. Most of the powers granted to the Authority under the present Bill are, as said, advisory. But advisory powers have a habit in this country of turning compulsive. The press will be urged to comply with the authority's decrees regardless of whether they have any formal force of law. Persistent breaches will be answered with more talk of "drinking at the Last Chance Saloon" and threats of legislation. We have only to look at the history of the "voluntary" agreements with the tobacco industry to see this tendency. Bearing this in mind, we can take the advisory role of the Authority as in fact a power of supervision supported by effective sanctions.

Bearing this in mind, let us examine clause 2-(1) (d) and (e). By these, it shall be the Authority's duty

to produce and promote codes of professional and ethical standards for the press; [and]

in support of the duties above, to conduct research into and make recommendations on the training and education of journalists.

This aims very plainly at the licensing of journalists, just as doctors and lawyers are now licensed. No doubt, many journalists will be pleased by licensing. It will limit competition and thereby raise their salaries. It will also create an outermost void into which they can be cast for serious breach of the professional standards imposed on them by the modish bureaucrats who usually get themselves elected or appointed to regulatory bodies.

40 years ago, licensing would have gone far to preventing the honest discussion of homosexuality which led to the Wolfenden Report and finally to the 1967 Act. Either it would have been too outrageous in itself to be tolerated in a professional body, or it would have provoked the more subtle responses by which such bodies suppress dissent from established values. Today, it would constrain many journalists from denouncing what they find absurd in the gay rights movement. It would expel or simply refuse to license the sort of people who write for Bulldog and other national socialist publications – not mention in fundamentalist Islamic, in Moonie, in Trotsyite, or even in libertarian publications.

Other clauses in the Bill, such as those dealing with restrictions on reporting and ownership of newspapers, can easily be turned in the same direction. Perhaps the supporters of the Bill think all this to be a good idea. Perhaps it is. But it cannot, without a gross perversion of language, be described as extending or even preserving the freedom of the press.

As I write, the future of this particular Bill is in some doubt. But I have no doubt that something very like it will eventually become law. Perhaps then we shall hear no more complaints of press misconduct, for it will then be perfect in the opinion of those who matter.

Edward Hume (Sean Gabb)

© 1993 – 2015, seangabb.

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