David Davis writes for the Daily Mail ‘Don’t trust me (or any creature of the State) with control of the press’
As published in the Daily Mail:
Don’t trust me (or any creature of the State) with control of the press: As a Royal Charter on newspaper regulation is approved, a stark warning from a senior MP David Davis
In its 300-year history, British press freedom has faced many threats. That is no surprise. A truly free press is a probing, scrutinising press; one that can make life uncomfortable for the Establishment.
Winston Churchill described the free press as ‘the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize’. Now that freedom is under attack. The culprit? A new Royal Charter, approved by the Privy Council.
In some respects, there is not a huge gulf between the type of regulation newspaper editors want and the regulation the Royal Charter demands. Both want an arbitration service to deal swiftly with complaints. Both promise prominent apologies from newspapers that get their facts wrong. Both could impose million pound fines for serious misconduct.
The crucial difference is about control. The press want to set up the regulator themselves, free from political influence. The Royal Charter claims to preserve press freedom but is really a creature of the State. Any newspaper that signs up will be submitting to regulation laid down by politicians. And if politicians have made the rules, then they can change the rules to suit themselves.
Ministers dismiss this concern. They claim a charter agreed by the Privy Council is somehow less political than a law proposed by Government. This is nonsense. The Privy Council is not a panel of independent experts – its active members are Government Ministers. We should not forget that it was the Privy Council that handed spin doctor Alastair Campbell the power to give orders to civil servants.
Despite this, the Government claims politicians could not further tighten up press laws because the Royal Charter can only be changed with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. To the untrained eye this might look like a good safeguard for press freedom.
It is actually very fragile. Any government could bypass this by amending the original Act which lays down the two-thirds majority rule. This can be done with a one-vote majority.
In his Guardian column last week, Hacked Off supporter Steve Coogan seemed to think this is all improbable, claiming that no politician wants to prevent ‘investigative or public interest journalism’. As someone who spent a decade on the Opposition benches exposing government scandals against the Blair administration’s constant culture of cover-up, I found this statement astonishing.
Even more so because, in recent weeks, we have seen how government can threaten the press when it reports inconvenient truths. In June, The Guardian published documents leaked to them by Edward Snowden. These showed that intelligence agencies were intercepting millions of innocent people’s phone calls and emails. The Government’s reaction? To protect the intelligence agencies and shoot the messenger.
In July, the Government forced Guardian staff to destroy hard drives containing the Snowden files. David Cameron claims they did this because they agreed the files posed a danger to national security. That is not true. The Guardian agreed for two reasons. First, not doing so would mean a costly legal battle. Second, all the information is also stored on hard drives in the US, where journalists enjoy the protection of the US Constitution.
Last week Mr Cameron also warned newspapers that they must demonstrate ‘social responsibility’ or ‘it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act’. This thinly veiled threat was crystallised by Conservative MP Julian Smith in a recent debate. Mr Smith called for The Guardian to be prosecuted.
That is why we cannot trust this or any future government with press regulation. The supposed safeguards for press freedom might look strong now, but they can be swept away in an instant on the grounds of ‘national security’, when the real aim is to spare Ministers’ blushes.
Of course a government must do all it can to stop sensitive information getting out. Details of Special Forces’ operations and the identity of our spies should not be public knowledge. However, British governments already have the power to do this. They can issue D-Notices, official requests to editors not to publish a story for reasons of national security.
Mr Cameron has threatened to use more D-Notices against newspapers unless they behave more ‘responsibly’. This bluster cannot hide the fact that the only crime newspapers have committed is to expose legally dubious mass surveillance and to embarrass the Government.
In fact, the Government issued a D-Notice in June, when the Snowden story began, which accepted that no newspaper had broken any rules. The Notice could issue only the vague warning that the story ‘may begin’ to jeopardise national security if there were ‘further developments of this same theme’.
Our Government is the only one in the free world to have reacted to this scandal by leaning on its own press. The Washington Post, New York Times, Der Spiegel, El Mundo and L’Espresso all carried the Edward Snowden story. Yet the US, German, Spanish and Italian governments have not threatened those newspapers with prosecution.
That is why the securocrats’ attacks on The Guardian sound so hysterical. Clearly no rules have been broken, and there are no grounds for prosecution.
Yet the Director-General of MI5 claims the Snowden leaks will allow terrorists to ‘strike at will’. Former GCHQ director Sir David Omand argued that the Snowden revelations were ‘the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever’ – even worse than those of Burgess and MacLean, the Cambridge spies who passed state secrets to the Soviet Union throughout the Second World War and on into the 1950s. Am I the only person who detects a hint of hyperbole here?
Defenders of the Royal Charter point out that it is optional. If newspapers are not forced to sign up, how can the Charter pose such a threat to press freedom? It does so by threatening to hit newspapers where it hurts – in their bank accounts.
If a newspaper gets sued and loses its case in court, it must pay damages to the other side. All fair and above board. However, under a new law, newspapers that reject the Royal Charter must not only pay extra high damages, they may still have to pay everybody’s costs even if they win their case. It is an outrageous law that seeks to punish the innocent.
Sometimes, though, the press are their own worst enemy. Many MPs oppose the Royal Charter and defend press freedom. However, we are not helped when Fleet Street editors, rather than uniting to defend their profession, instead attack each other. The freedom of the press is at stake. That is more important than the rivalry among newspaper editors.
There is no doubt that before the Leveson Inquiry, parts of the press were pretty shabby. The willingness of some journalists to harass, intrude, blag personal information and hack phones appalled all decent people.
However, we should not forget that what allowed some editors to play fast and loose with the law was the way the leaders of the political parties sucked up to newspaper owners and encouraged them to act as if they were above the law. The culpability of party leaderships is precisely why we should not welcome any form of press regulation that they can control.
At its worst a free press can be intrusive, cruel and unfair. But it is also the best weapon we have to hold the Establishment to account.