It’s a curious aspect of freedom in a civilized society that almost everyone complains that the press has too much freedom, but very few complain that we have too much of any other kind of freedom.
In the UK, we are legally free to start a business, employ people, and advertise our wares. We can support any political party, or start our own political party, and run for office. We can buy property where we want, and live where we wish. Every adult has a vote and is free to vote for whom they please.
All of these highly-prized freedoms – fought for at great cost by our ancestors – have a downside. People are free to start a business selling alcohol or offering slot machines to youngsters. They can run sweatshops employing immigrant labour on low wages and long hours. They can start extreme right wing or left wing political parties with offensive views on race, immigrants, or other people’s religion. They can organize protests that clog the streets. People are free to buy up homes and let them out to people on benefits, driving property prices up and making it difficult for first-time buyers. They can go and live in a tax haven and live off their rents.
All of these activities are seen by many as abuses that disadvantage the rest of the community. But few if anyone says “We need to regulate the kind of businesses people are allowed to start”, or “We must form a group to supervise the formation of political parties and ban people we think are extreme”, or “let’s appoint an authority to stop rich people buying up houses just to let them”.
The reason no-one says such things is because they would at once be seen as striking at the heart of hard-won freedoms. No matter how objectionable someone else’s political views may be, it’s crucial that they be allowed to hold them, or else the rest of us do not truly have political freedom. The fact that some people act selfishly or abuse their privileges is not sufficient reason to consider curtailing our freedom. They are the price we pay for enjoying those freedoms.
But somehow the media comes into a different category. Hardly a day passes without someone or other vocally demanding more regulation of the press. Usually it is a D-list celebrity who owes their fame to publicity given them by the media. Once they have achieved the fame and wealth they crave and no longer have any use for the press, they take exception to the media doing its job of reporting the news and begin to demand regulation – people like Hugh Grant (arrested for “lewd behaviour” with a prostitute) and Steve Coogan, notoriously reclusive now that he is rich and famous.
Both were among celebs who gave evidence to the Leveson Enquiry. Both are among people whose mobile phone was hacked by tabloid journalists. These people, and others in the same boat, have every right to be angry and seek redress. That redress is readily available to them because the actions of journalists in hacking mobile phones was already a criminal offence. Any journalist hacking phones will be pursued by the police and prosecuted, as happened to Glenn Mulcaire, Clive Goodman and 32 other journalists who were arrested, tried and, where appropriated, fined and jailed.
But, for some reason, that does not satisfy Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan. They don’t just want lawbreakers punished. They want the daily behaviour of all reporters to be subject to scrutiny or oversight by a special body set up specifically to monitor journalists and no-one else. Not actors, comedians, film stars or other celebrities. Just journalists.
There are many things in life that come under the heading of “Be careful what you wish for in case you get it” but not many that would have consequences as disastrous as muzzling the press.
Phone hacking is not the only big scandal to hit the headlines in recent years. There was the cash for Parliamentary questions scandal, the MPs expenses scandal, the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and, of course, the Jimmy Savile scandal. Every single one of these scandals – including phone hacking by journos – was exposed by the media. Not the police. Not the government. Not MPs. Not the judiciary. If the press had not had full license to investigate these abuses they would never have been uncovered and might still be happening.
Be careful what you wish for, in case you get it.