Britain Needs a First Amendment

Last month, two figures at the heart of Britain’s political and journalistic establishment went on trial.

Rebekah Brooks is the former chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International and a close friend of Prime Minister David Cameron. Andy Coulson was editor of the now defunct tabloid News of the World and Mr. Cameron’s former director of communications.

Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson face various charges of conspiracy to intercept voicemail, bribe public officials and pervert the course of justice, counts that arise from the “phone hacking” scandal, in which journalists were discovered illegally tapping mobile phones of both celebrities and the public. It will be one of Britain’s most significant criminal trials in years.

On the same day that Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson appeared in court, Mr. Cameron issued barely veiled threats against the Guardian newspaper. If the Guardian did not “demonstrate some social responsibility,” he warned, “it would be very difficult for the government to stand back and not to act.” What drew Mr. Cameron’s wrath was the newspaper’s role in publishing the revelations of the American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden.

The Guardian revelations have led to a concerted campaign of denunciation by the security forces and politicians. Andrew Parker, head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, claimed that the Guardian had handed “the advantage to the terrorists.” Lord Carlile, the government’s former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has accused the newspaper of committing a “criminal act.”

What links the trials of Ms. Brooks and Mr. Coulson and the political campaign against the Guardian is that both are key moments in the fraught debate in Britain about press regulation — and the schizophrenia among commentators toward such regulation. Both left and right demand freedom for journalism of which they approve. Both want to regulate the press they deplore. And both are helping erode the freedoms of Britain’s newspapers.

It all started with the phone hacking scandal. Outrage over the illegal tapping of mobile phones developed into a general fury at the behavior of an “out of control” press. The government set up the so-called Leveson Inquiry, named after the judge who chaired the year-long investigation. Its report , published last December, proposed the establishment of a regulatory body to police standards and impose sanctions.

The government eventually decided to implement the Leveson proposals through a Royal Charter, an obscure medieval legal instrument. A separate law allows courts to impose punitive fines in libel cases on newspapers that refuse to join the supposedly “voluntary” body. The aim is to allow Parliament to establish a regulatory framework for the press while maintaining the fiction that politicians are not involved in the process.

The right-wing press in Britain has been fiercely opposed to these proposals from the start. Liberals and the left have been deeply divided. Many civil libertarians have recognized the dangers posed by even minimal political oversight of the press. Others, driven by a loathing of Mr. Murdoch, and a desire to rein in tabloids, have lent their support to greater regulation. Britain, they argue, is not Zimbabwe, and there is no real threat to the freedom of the press from such minimal regulation.

It’s true that Britain is not Zimbabwe. And the new Royal Charter won’t turn Britain into a police state. But as the concerted attack on the Guardian reveals, political interference in investigative journalism is a real threat. Indeed, if press freedom is under such pressure now, how much more will it be under when new, more coercive, regulations are introduced?

At the same time liberals are confusing the legal and the moral issues involved. The Leveson inquiry set out to investigate the “culture, practice and ethics of the press.” From passing off gossip as news, to not respecting privacy, to failing to hold to account those in power, there are clearly major problems with the culture and ethics of the British newspaper industry.

Certain practices, such as phone hacking, are, and should be, treated as criminal offenses. But most of the issues that the Leveson inquiry addressed cannot be remedied through tighter regulation or prosecution; they require shifts in social attitudes and practices, and not just within the newspaper industry.

Partisan loyalties are, however, blinding both sides to the real meaning of press freedom. Commentators on the left who defend the Guardian’s right to publish uncomfortable truths about those in power seem oblivious to the dangers posed to such journalism by the Leveson proposals. Meanwhile, many on the right fail to understand that the reason to oppose greater press regulation is precisely so that the Guardian can have the freedom to publish what it did.

As a result, the very newspapers that have denounced the British government’s regulatory proposals as an unacceptable infringement upon press freedom have lined up with politicians and the security forces to lead the charge against the Guardian.

The conservative Daily Mail, for instance, among the fiercest of opponents of the Leveson proposals, has condemned the “lethal irresponsibility” of what it called in a headline “The paper that helps Britain’s enemies.” Far from defending the press from state interference, it has all but demanded the arrest of Guardian journalists.

What we have today in Britain is a tribal view of press freedom. Both sides want to defend freedom for the journalists they like while silencing the journalists they despise. Neither side seems to understand that the moment you invite politicians or the police to determine what is and is not acceptable journalism, freedom is eroded for all of us, whatever our political beliefs.

Oh, for a British First Amendment.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and the author of From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath.

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