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