Richard North, 25/10/2012  

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Britain's press must remain free, proclaims The Daily Telegraph this morning, then telling us that: "For all their faults, journalists provide a vital role in a democracy that would be lost if politicians were allowed to regulate them".

One assumes the strap-line was written by the author of the ensuing piece, Tim Luckhurst, but whoever wrote it, the sentiment would have been a tad more convincing if it had said of journalists, "for all their many faults".

Nevertheless, Luckhurst certainly puts his name to the body text, starting off with a quote from the old fraud, Winston Churchill, who in 1949, said: "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize".

We actually get the full-frontal here, as the quote goes on: "it [the free press] is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish… But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen".

This is the man – then in opposition – who in his previous tenure as prime minister, did his level best in October 1940 to seek the closure of the Sunday Pictorial and the Daily Mirror, not for any breach of defence regulations, but simply for their criticism of yet another Churchillian "blunder", the attempted liberation of the West African Vichy colony of Dakar. 

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One of the triggers was this cartoon and editorial (above), which appeared in the Daily Mirror on 27 September 1940, which Churchill found so offensive that he sought to ban any repetition.

This was also the man who grunted with approval when the massively popular playwright and social commentator J B Priestley, was kept from the airwaves, and this was the man who, for no sound reason, approved the actual closure of the Daily Worker in January 1941 and who had previously allowed his Minister of Information, Duff Cooper, to attempt to censor not only defence-related information but criticism of his own government.

For all his fine words, therefore, Churchill is the last person one might call in aid when considering press freedom. But then, press freedom hardly exists: the media is always in hock to one cause or another – even if it is its own stupidity. So perhaps the hypocrisy inherent in Luckhurst's reliance on Churchill is highly appropriate.

Not least, while the press bleats about its "vital role in a democracy", it has presided over – and largely supported – the steady transfer of power to the anti-democratic European Union, the very Daily Telegraph which so assiduously champions press freedom being one of those newspapers which supports the UK's continued membership of the EU.

Tim Luckhurst, however, is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent – that bastion of liberalism and free speech, and he is hawking his pamphlet published today, called "Responsibility without Power – Lord Justice Leveson's constitutional dilemma".

He is arguing that there must be effective regulation of the press, calling for "a new self-regulatory system must have powers to investigate wrongdoing and to summon journalists and their editors to give evidence".

He then says, "It must have the power to issue fines for unethical conduct and an absolute duty to inform the police immediately if any evidence of criminality comes into its possession. It might also offer a mediation service capable of handling promptly complaints that might otherwise go to the civil courts". But, above all, he says, "it must be independent from government, Parliament and state".

That is just so much cant. The press may be "independent from government, Parliament and state" but it is never free from the establishment. It is part of the establishment. Therefore, it will always tout the establishment line which, as we have come to learn, has very little to do with democracy – the vital character of our state which is increasingly absent.

Thus, while – as a matter of general principle – we would support any idea of keeping the Press free from state interference, one does wish that the Fourth Estate  would ease off the cant, and stop pretending that it is "free".

It would also help if the Press stopped pretending that we live in a democracy, but since that is an establishment myth designed to gull the population into believing that they have some little power over their government, it is unlikely that we will see any honesty in that direction.

The brutal facts, however, are that newspapers are businesses, and have their own interests. Those are not necessarily (and rarely are) those of their readers, and any special privileges that are afforded rarely work in the favour of the people. The newspapers can have their "freedom", but it is theirs, not ours.


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