Stand on your guard


Belarus and Ukraine, the March 1993 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Belarus and Ukraine, the March 1993 issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

By Andrew Graham Yooll

Britain has the best press in the world; or, if not the best, near enough the top. Its variety is rich and, even in its tabloid sector, there is a sense of public service as well as much entertainment and good humour. This opinion is offered as a footnote to the publication of Calcutt II (Review of Press Self-Regulation, Sir David Calcutt QC, HMSO, London, January 1993) and to the recent hearings of the House of Commons Heritage Committee.

The British press is being cowed by the leaders and spokesmen of a government operating in a virtual one-party system, a government which has been caught lying on several occasions and whose actions smack of increasing corruption. It is quite natural that, in such circumstances, the only valid existing opposition, the print media, should come under pressure.

Encouragement, from within government, of discussion about the possibility of statutory restrictions on press freedom reflects the fact that the government is not satisfied with its already very substantial powers. Any government official will, of course, deny this; the pressure will be presented as a desire to protect privacy. Much of the press can be accused of turning Tory at election time and the government can be expected to want to keep its support after the results are in. But the search for year-round and unwavering submission is now going too far.

If recent circumstances have even cowed — according to his own statement to the Heritage Committee on 21 January — the ineffably brash Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, the threats must be serious. The Sun is a paper some may not like, but its existence symbolises the rich mix that is British society and the British media — and its outrages have a redeeming cleverness.

The government has used the time honoured practice of ‘threatening the press by report’. The ‘report’ is a mechanism for keeping Oxbridge chums employed and for frightening the general public; it has very little to do with democracy and everything to do with political expediency: its findings can be entirely ignored, or only some of its recommendations implemented. Following — indeed preceding — publication of then latest report by David Calcutt QC, Prime Minister John Major rejected the idea of statutory controls on the press, and a privacy law is unlikely because it is too complex to produce; but, now that the threatening document is actually in print, departments of government can select clauses piecemeal and threaten indefinitely.

The press obviously deserves to be blamed for many of its present problems, principally for wringing its hands and indulging in internecine sniping while the threats were mounting. There was no lack of warnings. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 1987 report Attacks on the Press, published in March 1988, ranked the United Kingdom among ’13 Cases of Concern’ — alongside Bangladesh, Chile, Haiti, Kenya, and others. The CPJ’s warning, which followed the British government’s attempts to restrict the press in the Spycatcher case {Index 2/1988 p3) seems to have gone unheeded by the British press.

Then, at the time of Calcutt’s first report published in June 1990 (Index 7/1990, pp2-3), the Association of British Editors organised a seminar at which the results of a recent MORI poll on public attitudes to the press were discussed. The attitudes, mainly negative, came from just 813 adults, in a country that buys over 10 million newspapers every day. The poll’s findings were invoked by three MPs who proceeded to chastise some of Britain’s leading journalists. Instead of calling the MORI poll rubbish and telling the MPs to take a walk, the editors, in a sad little scene, proceeded to blame one another, — and most of all The Sun — for their poor image. They even damned the Sunday Sport, a comic (not represented at the meeting) which can by no means be considered part of the ‘press’, since it has never pretended to be a supplier of information, news or comment — nor even much sport.

Thus the United Kingdom arrived at 1992, the ‘Annus Horribilis‘, and another MORI poll, this time entitled Public Attitudes to the Press, almost as negative as the first, and based on a sample of 1,061 adults.

And now there is a bill introduced by Clive Soley MP, a Labour sepoy for the Conservative government, which seeks to rule on accuracy in the press in the name of protecting its freedom. Soley’s ‘Freedom and Responsibility of the Press’ bill had its second reading on 29 January. Mr Soley is a man of good intentions whose dog’s dinner of a draft will be used by government, any government, to enact those sections which best serve its own convenience. The one thing the press does not need is protection by laws. Press laws are a recourse of dictators.

The only proposal that could be salvaged for the present times, the ‘Right to Know’ bill, submitted by Mark Fisher MP, Labour, is a noble, catch-all freedom of information bill packed with good intentions and therefore worthy, but not worth hoping for. Fisher’s bill got its second reading on 19 February. (Index on Censorship supports it.)

The press should be subject only to the laws of the land; it has no need of special regulation. Journalists are no different from ordinary citizens, do not claim to be, and should not be considered so.

With hindsight, it is clear that the political, legal and bureaucratic Establishment cares not a whit what the press uncovers under the sheets of Charles Windsor or Diana Spencer, or whether Sarah Ferguson is pear- or plum-shaped. 

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The fact that the First Family’s privacy is invoked is largely to satisfy the yappers on the Tory back-benches’ and a few pseudo-monarchists in Her Majesty’s Permanent Opposition. But by appearing to plan to close the bedroom doors of the Royal Family, access to information about elected members of government, and any attempt to hold them accountable, is firmly barred. And therein lies the substantial cause and motive force of the Calcutt reports. 


If anything is wrong with Britain it is the one-party system that has overtaken the country since 1979. The press is one of the best things left in Britain when all about it is in decline. More important, it is the only democratic opposition voice remaining. If anything, the press should be even more intrusive into the affairs of a First Family which, by arrangement with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in July 1990, upped its bill to the UK taxpayer to £7.9 million per annum.

Of course, there will be casualties caused by an intrusive press, victims not only of The Sun or one of the other tabloids, but also of the broadsheets. The Press Council’s successor body, the Press Complaints Commission, was set up in 1991 to ensure that the press would be concerned about tidying itself up; its function must be strengthened but no other imposition should be necessary.

There can be little to be proud of in old stone piles which nobody can live in, or in government by anachronism. But the press in Britain is something the British can, and should, still be proud of. The variety to be found in the dottiness of Peregrine Worsthorne (Sunday Telegraph) or Julie Burchill (Mail on Sunday), the genius of Hugo Young (Guardian) or Neil Ascherson (Independent on Sunday), the wit of Bernard Levin and Matthew Parris (Times), and the fruity invective of Keith Waterhouse (Mail), as well as in the stimulating contributions of many, many others, including the entertaining outrages of Kelvin MacKenzie’s staff (Sun), are part of the fabric of a society that is still admired and envied all over the world — for a few things. To weaken any part of the press will be a serious loss.

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