Richard Ingrams' Week: Shackles that bind our free press

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The Independent Online

Before we all get too worked up about the freedom of the press, now said to be jeopardised by Muslims extremists, it might be useful to spare a moment to work out exactly what it amounts to.

It was a famous journalist, Hannen Swaffer, who said: "Freedom of the press in Britain means freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to."

What a cynical view and how typical of a journalist, some of you may think. But is it not a better guide than the idea that readers may get from recent dewy-eyed commentaries of a brave band of editors devoted to the cause of truth, and free to express their views even when these are likely to offend important personages of religious minorities.

As so often, the reality is rather different. If you support the freedom of the press, that means nowadays supporting not just The Sun and the News Of The World, it means supporting the pornographer Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express.

To suggest that the editors of these papers are free to print whatever they like is far-fetched. Rupert Murdoch may not dictate what goes into his papers but his editors know what is expected of them and act accordingly. George Bush must be supported, no unnecessary offence given to the Chinese.

In the same way under its former proprietor, the disgraced tycoon Conrad Black, the Telegraph's editor was obliged to print straightforward Israeli propaganda written by his wife, Barbara Amiel.

We are all in favour of freedom but if it just means the freedom of very rich men to propagate their reactionary views, is that necessarily something that we would be prepared to go to the stake for?

Anti-religion: the new orthodoxy of our age

The ballyhoo over those Danish cartoons and the riots and disturbances they provoke will only help to strengthen the hands of those who like to blame all the troubles of the world on religion.

How easy it is in the current climate to depict a world in which, on the one hand, there are civilised humanists going about their daily tasks in a calm and rational spirit, and, on the other, wild, excitable bigots fighting one another and general disturbing of the peace.

In this scenario, Christians, Muslims and Jews can all be bundled together as equally reprehensible wherever they may be found - in Northern Ireland, Iraq or Palestine.

Thus, in the absence of religion, a new orthodoxy of anti-religion gains ground. You can see it in the recent television programmes of Richard Dawkins, left, widely applauded in the media, in which all the troubles of the world were fairly and squarely blamed on religion and Christianity in particular.

The danger of thinking in this way is that it lets the politicians off the hook. As Adrian Hamilton pointed out in these pages earlier this week, the impetus behind the anti-cartoon protests is more political than religious.

The troubles of Ireland which linger on to the present day were caused not by religion but by unscrupulous British politicians who used the division of Ireland for their own purposes and ended up drawing an arbitrary line on the map. Other lines were drawn in the Middle East and it is these lines - mostly British ones - that have led to wars and revolutions.

How much easier, though, to blame it all on religion. In the same way, we can attribute the sufferings of Africa to the Pope who by outlawing contraception can be held responsible for all the squalor and suffering of that poor continent.

Nothing to do with the likes of Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe - both of them brought to power with the blessing of the British government.

* If you peer into the First Class compartments of the high-speed train as it enters the station you will see a number of young men peering into laptops, all in their shirt sleeves.

Does this mean that the temperature in those compartments has become so hot that they have all been forced to take their jackets off? Not so. What they are doing is to show to the outside world that they are working so hard that they have to be free from all possible encumbrances.

Tony Blair is another person who is always photographed in his shirt sleeves. The object here is to show the world not only that he is hard at it but that he is extremely fit.

Unfortunately for Blair, a sharp-eyed photographer recently observed and snapped a small segment of vest obtruding beneath the prime-ministerial shirt, thus proving that the only reason he was able to pose as a toughie was because he had a protective covering of wool next to the skin.

But all this creates a problem for young David Cameron. Were he too to take to appearing in his shirt sleeves he would be accused of imitating Blair, and he has had a bit too much of that already.

Cameron has therefore come up with his own gimmick. Where Blair appears in public without a jacket, Cameron will do so without a tie. Blair's aim is to show that he is fit and tough, Cameron's to show that he is unstuffy and classless. He will not wear the Old School Tie, he will wear no tie at all. Whether anyone is the least bit impressed remains to be seen.

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