Britain splits over 1694 rights of press freedom
Lord Leveson’s verdict on press ethics is in, and it recommends historic legislation to regulate the press. Is Britain taking a backward step in the long march toward liberty?
Lord Leveson’s verdict on British press ethics is in: despite ‘countless examples of great journalism,’ there are too many cases of newspapers abusing their power. ‘A law is needed to stop press havoc.’
If such a law is passed, it will be the first time in over 300 years that the government has restricted print media; and the history of Britain’s democracy is tightly entwined with its press.
In the 17th century, as printing became cheaper, the first ‘newsbooks’ were published to spread propaganda. This was a vital cause of the English Civil War, when English Parliamentarians revolted against their draconian King.
Censorship laws during this English Civil War provoked one of the most celebrated defences of free speech in history: John Milton‘s Areopagitica. ’Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely,’ wrote Milton, ‘above all liberties.’
In 1688, Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ finally blunted the monarchy’s power. It is no coincidence that six years later the licensing laws that had shackled the press were abolished.
By the 19th century, Britain saw itself as a beacon of freedom and moderation for all the world to follow. And papers brashly trumpeted themselves as a bastion of these virtues: ‘Where but in this country,’ asked one, ‘would the caustic satire of Punch, vehement in its attacks on everyone from Royalty downwards, have prospered so long?’
Simultaneously, the hugely influential philosopher J.S. Mill argued in On Liberty that no constraints should be placed on individuals, except to prevent harm to others. Freedom of speech was a vital part of this.
But some worried that the ‘Fourth Estate’ of journalism was itself becoming tyrannical. ‘At the present moment it is the only estate,’ said Oscar Wilde. ‘We are dominated by journalism.’
Over the course of the 20th century these fears grew, as UK tabloids became notorious for their sensationalism. The Leveson Inquiry is the seventh government report into press practices in just seventy years.
The story of Britain, say liberal historians, is that of a grand struggle between liberty and tyranny. So far liberty has won – but those freedoms are vulnerable. Regulating the press would be a backward step toward darkness and despotism.
But many historians find this narrative of ‘grand struggle’ simplistic: each era faces its own complex problems, they say, which cannot be lumped into one great battle between good and evil. In 1694, authoritarian kings threatened freedom of speech; today, society is plagued by a rampant, over-reaching press. The two situations are totally incomparable.
- Are there grand struggles that run throughout the entire course of history? If so, what are they?
- Which is more damaging to a free society: an unethical press culture, or a government that regulates the media?
- Write a paragraph on what ‘liberty’ means to you, and compare your definition with the rest of the class. How similar are your ideas?
- Research the English Civil War and write a short essay addressing the reasons for the Parliamentarian revolt against King Charles I. Do you think they were fighting for freedom from tyranny, or for other causes?
Some People Say...
“Every generation is another chapter in the endless battle between tyranny and freedom.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Would these proposals mean the end of free speech?
- No. The press would simply be monitored by an independent body which ensures that it serves the public interest. Denmark has a stricter system, and Reporters Without Borders rank its press freedom as greater than the UK’s. But some foresee a ‘slippery slope’: once regulations are in place, they are open to manipulation and abuse by governments with authoritarian ambitions.
- How likely is it that a law will be passed?
- It’s in the balance. Prime Minister David Cameron has shied away from supporting the legislation, but his coalition partner Nick Clegg has given the proposals his full backing. If Labour and the Lib Dems could join with Conservative rebels, they could push through a law – and cause a major rupture in the British government.
- English Civil War
- In 1642, King Charles I attempted to arrest several members of the English parliament after they refused to grant him money for his wars. Parliamentarians (often known as ‘Roundheads’ for the shape of their helmets) revolted against the king, and eventually executed him for treason – an unprecedented act that shocked the whole of Europe.
- John Milton
- Milton’s long poem Paradise Lost is one of the most celebrated works in English. But he actually spent most of his career producing political pamphlets to further the radical cause in the English Civil War.
- Glorious Revolution
- After the Civil War, the monarchy was restored. But in 1688 Parliamentarians overthrew James II and replaced him with a Dutch nobleman who became William III. The conditions they imposed transferred many powers from the king to Parliament.
- Fourth Estate
- Historically, the Three Estates are Church leaders, noblemen and commoners. The term ‘Fourth Estate’ was invented by philosopher Edmund Burke to describe the press.
- Liberal historians
- Not just history written by liberals, but a specific interpretation of history in which society gradually develops from tyranny to democracy. Though it has been heavily criticised, this view is still very influential in Britain today, especially in works of popular history like television documentaries.