LA Statement on the Proposed Royal Charter to Regulate the Press (2013)
Response by the Libertarian Alliance
to the Proposed Royal Charter to Regulate the Press (2013)
The Libertarian Alliance is against the current proposals, both in their principle, and in their most likely scheme of implementation.
Since the expiry of the Licensing Act in 1695, there has been no statutory regulation of the press in England. Instead, the press has been regulated by private or public actions through the ordinary courts of law. This is not to say that we have enjoyed complete freedom of the press during the past three hundred years. The laws of seditious and blasphemous libel were, until about the middle of the 19th century, serious curbs. Since then, the various Obscene Publications Acts, and the Official Secrets Acts, and the modern laws against “hate speech,” have continued to keep the press imperfectly free. Throughout the entire period, until this year’s Defamation Act, there has also been the law of common libel. The Libertarian Alliance deplores all of these constraints.
What the absence of direct regulation means, however, is that no one has needed any kind of registration to start a print publication, or to submit to any jurisdiction over its contents except that of the ordinary courts of law. Therefore, if they have wanted to close down any publication, or simply to determine its contents or tone, the authorities have had to take action in open court, in front of judges and juries over whom they have had little control, and proceeding by a reasonably impartial rule of law.
The Royal Charter currently proposed will bring the press under the same formal control as the broadcast media. Unless they want to risk discriminatory libel awards, newspapers will have to register themselves. They will have to submit to various extra-legal codes of conduct. There will be review and complaints procedures from articles already published. The whole process will be managed by an organisation run by trusted members of the Establishment and staffed by reliable clients of the Establishment. Vast salaries will be paid to those at the top. These will be funded by what amounts to a tax payable – as is presently the case with the BBC licences fee – disproportionately by the poorest buyers of newspapers.
This organisation will, by formal adjudications – though more often by secret pressure – ensure compliance of the press with the current ruling class ideology. Today, this is political correctness. Thirty years ago, it would have prevented rational discussions of homosexuality and other alternative lifestyles. No one can say what might be the ruling class ideology a generation from now. All we can say for sure is that the press will be forced to bow to that ideology, whatever it is.
A further effect of the proposed scheme of regulation is that it will enable the rich and well-connected to avoid public discussion of their wrong-doings. A regulated press might not have been able to reveal the nature and extent of the abuse of expenses by Members of Parliament, or to entrap senior politicians into promises of corrupt service behind the scenes, or to reveal as lies most of the claims that propelled us into the Iraq War. We have a right to know how those exercising power over us behave in private. This obviously means their breaches of the criminal law. It also means their hypocrisies and general breaches of the moral law.
We are told the current proposals are justified by the scandals revealed in the Leveson Inquiry – telephone hacking, leaking of confidential information by the police and so forth. However, all the abuses revealed were already crimes. Without any change in the law, there have been prosecutions, and people have been sent to prison. Rather than a new law, capable of achieving far more than we are assured is needed, we simply need the existing laws to be properly enforced. At least since the 1980s, the custom has emerged of responding to every scandal or misfortune with new laws. This is a bad custom that has led us far towards a police state. Where freedom of the press is concerned, the time has surely come to stop and consider how the undoubted abuses of certain newspapers can be corrected without a Royal Charter that will, sooner or later, become the warrant for a general scheme of press censorship.
For these reasons, the Libertarian Alliance joins with the Campaign against Censorship and other civil liberties organisations in calling on the Government to reconsider its proposals.