Stephen Glover: The threats to our free press seem less acute after this eloquent defence
Media Studies: How impressive his reflections seemed in light of politicians’ manoeuvrings
Monday 24 October 2011
Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, made a magnificent speech last week about press freedom. It can be found very easily online, and I urge you to read it. These were no inconsequential musings from the most senior member of our judiciary. Delivered in clear, beautiful English, what he said amounted to the most powerful and moving defence of a free press that I have heard from a living person, and it is wondrous that such words should have fallen from the lips of a judge. I believe that its effect will be to reduce the likelihood of statutory regulation of newspapers almost to zero.
He quoted the radical journalist John Wilkes, who wrote in 1762: "The liberty of the press is the birthright of every Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country." This meant, Lord Judge said, that a free press belongs not to journalists or the media (or, he might have added, to proprietors) but to "every citizen" and "the community as a whole". He declared that "the independence of the press is not only a constitutional necessity, it is constitutional principle."
In other words, a free press is almost indescribably precious. Lord Judge compared it in importance to the freedom of the judiciary from the Executive. "The independence of the judiciary and the independence of the media are both fundamental to the continued exercise, and indeed the survival of, the liberties which we sometimes take for granted." When did you last hear a judge say such things? Or anyone else, come to that?
Though he deplored "the scandal of telephone hacking which took the form of cruelty to one family and ultimately led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry", the Lord Chief Justice recognised the importance of newspapers being able to survive in the marketplace (as Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, had done the previous week) and he defended the equal rights of tabloids: "It is part of the exercise of our constitutional freedoms that we should be able to choose for ourselves the newspapers we buy and read. We are not cut from identical cloth."
Well said! This led him to the thought that "whatever means are designed to reduce the occasions of unacceptable behaviour by the elements of the press, they must not simultaneously, even if accidentally, diminish or dilute the ability and power of the press to reveal and highlight true public sandals or misconduct." Without offering specific proposals, he argued that the powers of the self-regulating Press Complaints Commission should be increased, but that statutory regulation must be avoided.
These are the reflections of a refined and enlightened mind. How impressive they seem in light of the self-interested manoeuvrings of politicians! I believe they were intended to frame the debate within the confines of continued self-regulation. Lord Judge said that Lord Justice Leveson would arrive at his own conclusions, but added that he had recommended him to head the inquiry, leaving the inference that he would not have pushed forward a man who did not broadly share his views on press freedom.
The inquiry is expected to last until next summer. I don't doubt that a small number of believers in statutory (ie, government) regulation, most of them not very distinguished academics, are still circling Lord Leveson and his six-person panel in the hope of influencing them. But the debate is now really about how to make self-regulation work better. The biggest challenge is to compel participation. What can be done if Richard Desmond's newspapers remain outside the PCC?
However problematic that may be, Lord Judge's splendid intervention marks a sea change. A day after his speech, a media QC who believes in statutory regulation complained to me that the Lord Chief Justice does not understand the media. Perhaps he doesn't follow the rough-and-tumble, but it seems to me that he grasps the great issues of press freedom as well as any man alive.
How much time has James Murdoch got left?
As was predictable, a revolt last Friday by some News Corp shareholders at their Los Angeles AGM to get rid of Rupert Murdoch and his son James from the media conglomerate did not get very far. The Murdoch family controls 40 per cent of the voting shares, and could rely on further support.
But the fact that there was an open rebellion at all, despite strong profits, is surely highly significant. This probably marks the first step in News Corp's evolution from a family-controlled company to a conventional – and unsentimental – media giant. That would not be good news for many employees on loss-making Murdoch titles such as The Times.
As he is 81, and looking and sounding his age, Rupert may appear more likely to go first, but my money would be on James – and possibly quite soon. He is due to return to the Commons Media, Culture and Sport Committee, where he will be expected to clear up some apparent inconsistencies between his previous evidence and that of former senior News of the World executives. One well-placed company source suggests that News Corp might sack him before he appears lest these inconsistencies redound to the company's detriment.
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