Freedom of the press, the late, great press critic A.J. Liebling once remarked, “is guaranteed only to those who own one.” We take his point. Mr. Liebling, who died more than a half-century ago, said some other colorful things about the press that still resonate with newspaper readers today. “I take a grave view of the press,” he said. “It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” But better a weak slat than no slat at all.
Exposing the arrogance and pretensions of the press is one of our oldest sports, and nobody plays the sport with more heartfelt relish than newspapermen themselves, who learn early, if they become ornaments of their trade, to detect frauds, and nobody does fraud better than politicians. Fraud is what draws some men to politics, and this makes newspapermen and politicians mortal enemies (with frequent get-togethers under a flag of truce at the hotel bar), which is how it is when politics and press work best.
Politicians have always dreamed of muzzling the press, the better to lead the body politic onward and upward, into what Winston Churchill famously called “the broad, sunlit uplands,” with the body politic taking no notice that his pocket has been picked until he has been left naked and alone, freezing in the rain and wind.
That dream is one usually shared by politicians of the left and right, held in check in America only by the First Amendment. But in Britain, there is no First Amendment, and this week, the government presided over by David Cameron, a Conservative, announced that it would impose a new system of press “regulation” to be backed by law. “Regulation” of speech — and speech is what the press is about — always means “suppression” of speech. No government in history or in the imagination of man could resist the temptation to impose and suppress if given the power and authority to advise and regulate.
The British politicians who yearn to regulate feel empowered in the wake of several press scandals, the hacking into private telephones by the tabloids, the intimidation and abuse of the private citizen occasionally trapped in the pursuit of news, and what one campaigner for regulation calls “the demonizing of large sections of society, from public-sector workers to women and trade-union members.” There’s something in “regulation” for both right and left, pandering to everyone who ever felt abused by a story in the newspaper.
The threat of “regulation” is scary because this is not a squalid African satrapy or the remnant of the old Soviet Union, but the government of a land that gave us all the guarantees of life and liberty that free men now demand as their due.
The Labor Party is joining the Tories to push the scheme to fight back at The Daily Mail, arguably the most powerful newspaper in Britain (with a widely read Internet site featuring politics and Hollywood gossip), which is particularly hard on Labor politicians. The Mail published in September an over-the-top profile of the late Ralph Miliband, a radical leftist and father of Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labor Party and in line to become prime minister if Labor wins the next parliamentary election. It’s only right that the sins of the father are not visited on the son, but if voters want to think “like father, like son,” well, that’s politics.
This outrages many in Britain on both left and right. But the greater outrage by far is attempting to redress a misdemeanor with a felony. Englishmen of all people should know better. Free speech, which makes all things possible, trumps everything.