Free expression is the bedrock of a free society. The moral case for a truly free press is overdue a hearing

The real danger isn't state censorship but the consolidation of a sterile, conformist atmosphere in which it's accepted that it simply won't do to publish some stories

Related Topics

Self-regulation or state-backed regulation? As we await Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the “culture and ethics” of the British media, the battle lines are apparently being drawn for a fight over the future of press freedom. Except that they are not. This is a phoney war.

The problem is that both parties to the current debate are effectively on the same side of the lines. Anti-tabloid campaigners want a tough new regulator backed by state legislation. Defenders of self-regulation such as Lord Hunt of the Press Complaints Commission instead propose a tough new independent regulator that would have more powers to police the press than are currently enjoyed by the police.

All of them have accepted the central myth of the post-phone hacking debate:  that the British press is too free to run wild. The fact is, however, that the press is not nearly free or open enough.

Many people were shocked by revelations of press malpractice around the phone hacking scandal. Some of us were more taken aback by how few seemed prepared to mount a resolute defence of the freedom of the press in response to the furore. How far that freedom has fallen out of fashion was made clear at the conference of the misnamed Liberal Democrats. Steve Coogan, top celebrity tabloid-basher, told a fringe meeting that “press freedom is a lie peddled by proprietors and editors who only care about profit”, which went down a storm. Press freedom is a lie! If only those who have struggled for a free press through British history could have shared the wisdom of Alan Partridge. Why bother going to the Tower or the gallows in defence of a lie?

A loaded gun

It was in this atmosphere that past cases of phone-hacking involving one paper and a single private detective were seized upon as the pretext to launch a crusade to purge the entire press. It should have been clear from the start that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was the state’s latest effort to tame the press, an inquisition aiming to impose a new orthodoxy on the media and root out heretical journalism of which the elite disapproves. The reaction last month from those on the receiving end of Leveson’s initial 100-page "diatribe" suggest that, in the words of Independent editor Chris Blackhurst, he is indeed “loading a gun" aimed at newspapers.

Yet from the start few questioned the right of the unelected, unaccountable Lord Justice to rule on how far the clock should be turned back on press freedom. A chorus of celebrities and politicians acted as cheerleaders for the inquisition. Worse, many liberal journalism academics and civil-liberties campaigners went over to the other side, lining up behind Leveson to demand firmer regulation under the banner “We believe in press freedom, BUT…”

The biggest danger to free and open press today is not crude state censorship. We are not looking at the “Orwellian nightmare” of a jackboot stamping on a journalist’s face.  The real threat is the consolidation of a sterile atmosphere of conformism and self-censorship in which, as Orwell said of the British press in 1945, it is accepted that it simply “wouldn’t do” to publish certain stories or opinions. So long as that holds, it will not much matter what precise new system of regulation is put in place.

Ethical... cleansing

High-minded critics talk about the need for more “ethical journalism”. This demand for ethereal ethics is a cover for pursuing a more earthbound agenda: purging the press to suit the tastes of those who think “popular” is a dirty word. They want a powerful new regulator to wash the press’s mouth out with carbolic soap. I call it “ethical” cleansing.

It is high time to put forward the moral case for greater press freedom. Freedom of expression is the bedrock liberty of a free society. Nothing we know, love or hate in science, politics or the arts would have been possible without the fight for a free press. If we want a proper debate about the future we need a free press, print and web, more than ever.

The hard truth is that a free press does not have to comply with anybody else’s notions of good or ethical journalism, or what is fit to be seen and heard. You need not be as pious as Steve Coogan or Hugh Grant to qualify for press freedom. It is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving. Freedom is a messy business. And defending it means standing up for the right of others to publish – and to read - things you might not want to know.

There is a far bigger historic issue at stake here than phone hacking. We should stand for press freedom, as something that belongs to all  - or to none at all - with no buts. And that’s no lie.

Mick Hume is a journalist and author of new book There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press. He is speaking on Stop the press: the media after Leveson and What is the truth? at the Battle of Ideas on 21 October is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: MS Dynamics AX Developer (SSRS/ SSAS) - global business

£425 per day: Ashdown Group: A small business with an established global offer...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Bankers in cahoots in a cabin with their cohorts

Guy Keleny
British female troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan  

There are simply no good reasons why women should not be allowed to serve on the front line

James Wharton
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas