Should an independent weekly newspaper serving the West Highlands be concerned about press regulation –or should The Oban Times just dismiss the matter as of no consequence? Perhaps we should look at the events that have unfolded.
At the start there was justifiable outrage at the illegal and unethical behaviour undertaken by some members of the national press which caused unimaginable distress to the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann,and others,for which there is no conceivable excuse. The law says such behaviour is illegal and it should be punished. Since then however things have moved on a great deal and we now have the 2,000 page Leveson Report which,in the end,proposes changes that could result in restrictions on the free press.
In Scotland Lord McCluskey went further causing respected commentator Magnus Linklater to write “At a stroke Lord McCluskey’s expert group proposes changes that would sweep away centuries of robust press freedom”and urging Mr Salmond to “consign this wretched report to the dustbin where it belongs”.
The UK press is not the only party to condemn these reports. Press commentators in the USA,where press freedom is guaranteed through the First Amendment of the US Constitution 15th December 1791, Canada,Australia,Germany,France,Iran and Russia,yes that’s right Iran and Russia and others have criticised this “sad event in the history of the press in the UK”as “Great Britain was the first country to introduce freedom of the press which is now to be put at risk”.
We in this country have accepted as our democratic right the automatic assumption of a free press for 300 years when newspapers were no longer subject to government licensing. Are we now to see that right casually swept away after a deal cobbled together at two o clock in the morning by cross party politicians in the presence of four members of “Hacked Off”described as a “celebrity heavy victims group”. We now learn that the same organisation is very reluctant to reveal its financial backers causing the Chairman of the Commons Culture and Media and Sport Committee to observe “They are a lobbying organisation and they are pressing for transparency about meetings between politicians and the press and I think it perfectly fair to expect them to be transparent too”.
To illustrate the immense complexities opened up by the desire to control the press we only have to look at the proposal to force newspapers who don’t sign up to this restraint to pay all the costs of a legal battle –even if they win –an absolute”no-brainer go-ahead”for anyone feeling peeved with the press and wanting free publicity into the bargain. Celebs’will have a field day as we may assume they will push hard for publicity when it suits them.
The Oban Times is hardly in the big league of newspapers but it has been around for 150 of those 300 years of press freedom,serving its readers who automatically assume it is written and published free of any outside national political or local government interference. Should it in future publish something of which the regulator disapproves it could be subject to a fine –possibly substantial enough to put the paper and the jobs of its staff at risk. Is that press freedom or is it political control which can so easily move between national and local government.
An example of what may lie around the corner comes in a letter to a national newspaper in support of the Leveson report from Christopher Morcom,QC,which concluded “But whatever happens following Leveson,Parliament will remain supreme. The press should be wary of “finding something worse”“. May we reasonably assume this means the press should accept the proposed regulation or be subject to something more severe. If so it confirms precisely why we should maintain a free press. It is our right as free citizens.
On 13th April 1939 Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons said “We sneer at the Press,but they give an extremely true picture of a great deal that is going on,a very much fuller and more detailed picture than we are able to receive from ministers of the Crown”.
We all know Churchill’s legacy to our nation but what,Mr Cameron,will be yours? As the Prime Minister who oversaw the destruction of press freedom in the UK? If so Prime Minister,whatever else you might achieve,this will be your legacy to history. We urge you to step forward firmly to preserve,above all,the integrity of press freedom.