This is a line that should send a shudder down the spine of every man and woman who cares about freedom of the press: “It is vital that a free press can tell truth to power; it is equally vital that those in power can tell truth to the press.” That threat, that ominous, Orwellian rewriting of the phrase “telling truth to power” as “using power to enforce the truth”, was uttered by David Cameron this morning.
Cameron is doing nothing less than hinting at a rearrangement of the relationship between the state and the media. For too long, he implies, journalists have been at liberty to hack and investigate and say what they see fit; now, post-hacking scandal, those in authority must step up and cast a more watchful eye over these antics.
When I once argued that the Guardian’s “almost pathological pursuit of the News of the World hacking story is posing a serious threat to press freedom”, I was roundly mocked by the newspaper’s media correspondent, Roy Greenslade. He said I was naive about the “worthless nature of [the News of the World’s] journalistic aims and results”. Its reporting is “not in the public interest”, he sniffed, before expressing doubt that the state would show much interest in curtailing its behaviour. Yet now, lo and behold, it appears that one concrete consequence of the hacking scandal, alongside the closure of a newspaper read by millions of people, will be the corrosion of press freedom, the creeping of the state into an arena which the Guardian and others have somewhat gleefully depicted as corrupt and depraved and in urgent need of a clean-up.
Cameron this morning promised to set up two inquiries – one specifically on what happened at the News of the World, the other, more worryingly, on “press behaviour” in general. And he expressed his keenness to establish a new regulatory body, one with more teeth, and therefore presumably with more bite, than the current Press Complaints Commission. He paid lip service to the idea of press freedom, of course, though his attitude can best be summed up as “I support press freedom, but…”
So he said he wants a press that is “free and rigorous, which investigates and entertains”, BUT it must also be “clean and trustworthy”, as no doubt defined by him, his inquiries and the regulatory body which he hopes will speak power to truth. The end result of the intense media focus on the scandal at the News of the World, of the depiction of Wapping as something akin to the seventh circle of hell, of the pressure heaped upon politicians to Do Something About It, is likely to be ill-thought-through and illiberal new measures.
The press in Britain has been pretty much free since the 17th century. It will be a very sad day for open and honest and unfettered media investigation and debate if that now changes in the wake of the hacking scandal, and if politicians tiptoe into what was previously a no-go zone for them: the hearts and brains of hacks. Yes, the tabloids can be ugly beasts at times and they frequently publish drivel; the News of the World went beyond even that, and someone at that paper should have tackled the moral rot head-on. But still, better to have a bad free press than a “good” controlled one. A “free press” designed to conform to Cameroonian tastes and morals is not a free press at all.