Monday, 11 July 2011

Who bans the news that “isn’t fit to print”?

A sentence and an image are haunting me. The sentence, prompted by the righteous outpourings of The Guardian, the BBC, and certain Members of Parliament, is Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s:
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”
The image, perhaps a bit impious, was occasioned by the fate of The News of the World: a thief being nailed and hoisted on a cross.
This is Sir Roger L’Estrange (1616-1704). He lived up to his surname. On the one hand, he was a journalist and the publisher of two papers, The Public Intelligencer (Mondays) and The News (Thursdays). On the other, he was a censor, known as “The Bloodhound of the Press” for the ferocity with which he purged, persecuted and suppressed dissidence and non-conformity in his twin roles as Surveyor of the Imprimery (the printing presses) and Licenser of the Press.
Dear old Rog even tried to cut six lines from Paradise Lost because he reckoned that Milton was making some coded attempt to subvert Charles II (Book I, 594-599). Failed, I’m glad to say.
Anyway, simply because it proves that it’s quite possible for a journalist to be as censorious as a puritan, the story of this smiling, savage Cavalier came back to me yesterday when I was reading one of Alastair Campbell’s many eloquent denunciations of the Murdoch media empire. This one, called The News that wasn't fit to print, celebrated the demise of The News of the World in the Irish Independent. It was the peroration (to use a Miltonian word), that sparked my train of thought:
“As to where this all ends,” Alastair writes, “who knows? It is hard to see how there won't be more arrests and more prosecutions. The press will lick their wounds but then, as they have so many times before, fight hard and dirty to try to win the argument that anything but toothless self-regulation such as they enjoy at the moment will be an attack on a free press. The politicians have to hold firm on this, and do the right thing by the public. A free press, yes. But a press that is above the law, untouchable, and debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity, no.” (Italics mine)
None of us, I’m certain, wants a press that is “above the law” or “untouchable”. But how precisely do you prevent the press “debasing culture and society through a relentless diet of trivia, celebrity, abuse and negativity” without installing some draconian form of censorship. How will you determine what constitutes “trivia” or “abuse” or “negativity”? What exactly is the purpose of including “celebrity” under the Campbell dispensation, and what is to be done with or about it or them?
I was quite surprised to read a Press release today which described the new Bribery Act which just came into force in the UK as “the strictest bribery and anti-corruption law anywhere in the world”. That sounded rather frightening and not very British. I wonder if in the backlash from the hacking scandal we aren’t in danger of sleepwalking away from a free press and towards the strictest media regulation in the world? Hope not.

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