The rule of law is more important than unbridled press freedom

by Mark Stockwell

Like cornered cobras, journalists and editors have been baring their fangs in recent weeks to put pressure on the government to reject the statutory regulation of the press most now expect the Leveson report to recommend.

This is only to be expected – their way of life is being called into question.  Even those newspapers usually so quick to dismiss ‘producer interest’ are suddenly spouting every self-serving rationalisation as to why their industry should be uniquely free from interference.

Let me be clear – I hold no brief for statutory regulation of the press. Instinctively, I favour self-regulation. And I accept that the press is different from other industries, that having an open discourse of ideas and opinions is part of the lifeblood of parliamentary democracy. I get it, I really do.

But it is wholly unacceptable for an editor to state, as Fraser Nelson of the Spectator did on Wednesday, that he will not abide by the law.

Before he has even seen what Leveson proposes; before the government has come forward with its response; before the democratically-elected parliament has had a chance to consider and debate the proposals, Nelson has taken it upon himself to declare his publication and, by extension, his profession, above the law.

Nelson no doubt sees himself as a swashbuckling guardian of press freedom and of liberty in general. I imagine there is some commercial advantage in the Spectator presenting itself in such terms. No doubt he will be warmly applauded by many of his fellow journalists, succoured by his stout defence of their noble profession.

But in truth it represents a quite astonishing degree of constitutional self-importance.

No attempt will the Spectator make to accommodate the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives; no effort to influence the legislation to make it more palatable; no concession to the pitifully low esteem in which journalism is held.  The freedom of the press, on Nelson’s pompous account, is absolute, sacrosanct and indivisible.

It may well be, as Nelson says, that dealing with hacking is a matter for the police; that enhanced self-regulation is a better idea; and  that statutory regulation would not achieve its ends. He and other journalists have every right to advance that case, and I would have a great deal of sympathy with them.

But ultimately it’s parliament, backed up by the courts, that makes the law of the land. Newspaper editors get to support the law or to oppose it, and to campaign accordingly. But they don’t get to decide whether or not to abide by it.

Let’s see what Leveson recommends, and what the government proposes.

And then let’s see what parliament decides.

Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs


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6 Responses to “The rule of law is more important than unbridled press freedom”

  1. Plenty of bad laws have been opposed and over-turned by civil disobedience. He’ll face the consequences if it comes to it.

  2. wg says:

    Yes, sorry to raise Godwin’s law, but Hitler wasn’t too keen on press freedom – and he had the law on his side.

    And I never hear much about those 13 years of Labour rule when their town hall bullies were hacking into people’s computers.

    Anyway, what makes you think the lawmakers in our Parliament are held in any higher esteem than our journalists.

  3. ‘Civil disobedience?’ I think that’s what I meant by ‘self-importance’. We’re hardly talking about imperial occupation of India here …

  4. swatantra says:

    ‘But it is wholly unacceptable for an editor to state, as Fraser Nelson of the Spectator did on Wednesday, that he will not abide by the law.’

    I agree, and said so on their Coffee House Blog.
    I never agreed with Voltaire when he said ….

  5. Dan McCurry says:

    Frazer is the modern day suffragette. Maybe he should throw himself under the Queen’s horse?

  6. Henrik says:

    Good luck to Nelson and the Spectator and they can rely on my support, financial and/or physical if this absurd, sinister idea of politicians somehow regulating the press ever comes to fruition.

    Of all the people in the world I would trust to look after civil liberties, British machine politicians come some considerable way down the list.

    “…get to support the law or to oppose it, and to campaign accordingly. But they don’t get to decide whether or not to abide by it” – bullshit. Everyone has an absolute right to ignore a law if they choose, provided they understand and accept the likely consequences. Having read Nelson’s editorial, that’s *precisely* what he says.

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