Given the raucous and competitive battle of ideas on which the British press is founded, it is a difficult feat, rarely achieved, to unite every single national newspaper on a topic. Nevertheless, Tom Watson and Ed Miliband’s campaign against media freedom – which had its latest outing in the Commons this afternoon – managed to pull it off.
Regular readers of this site will already know that ConservativeHome stands with the national and local newspapers who oppose the twin bad ideas of commencing Leveson Two and implementing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. We do so for reasons of practice and principle, in the belief that these proposals would be damaging to ConservativeHome but also to the press as a whole, and thereby to accountability and democracy in this country.
Returning to yet more Leveson would be a colossal waste of time and money, all in pursuit of a cause The Guardian describes as “a driver learning to steer by looking in the rear-view mirror at the road behind rather than the one ahead.” Its defeat – albeit by an uncomfortably narrow margin of nine votes – today is a sensible and correct decision.
It now seems that Labour’s amendment on Section 40 will not be put to a vote at all, because Watson et al see that it is likely to be defeated. That, too, is good news. As I argued back in 2016, this pernicious item of legislation would be both utterly unjust and hugely damaging to free expression in the UK, amounting as it does to allowing vexatious litigants to financially penalise journalists even for publishing things that a court finds to be true.
Such a rule would be an obscene parody of justice, and it is easy to see why various rich and badly-behaved people are enthusiastically in favour of the right to target truthful publications with large bills. A Britain in which the perpetrators of, say, the Rotherham abuse scandal could use the law to punish a newspaper for exposing their sins would be a troubling country in which to live.
Like any other bullies, the advocates of Section 40 say anyone penalised in such a way would only have themselves to blame: publications can avoid being subjected to this wrongdoers’ charter by joining Impress, the Mosley-backed. state-authorised regulator closely linked to many of those very same enemies of the free press
This is an absurd argument. Being free to act, so long as you do as someone else demands on pain of financial ruin, is no freedom at all. That ought to be obvious; any pretence otherwise is utterly bogus.
Nor is subjecting oneself to Impress a light burden: it involves abandoning the precious, centuries-old principle of press freedom, and doing so specifically by handing authority to a body which has wildly underperformed even the quite low expectations which met its creation. The organisation has failed to persuade any but a fringe handful of outlets to submit to it voluntarily – the fact its fans now seek a legislative stick with which to force publications into its oversight reflects its failure.
Watson may have given up on his plans for a vote today, but he will inevitably be back. He has been pushing these bad ideas for years, hoping to sneak through a blow against British press freedom at any and every chance. He evidently believes that either this hung Parliament or a future Labour majority will at some point allow him to get his way.
The existence of Section 40 on the statute book facilitates that rather shoddy tactic. There it sits, waiting to be triggered either by some opportunistic motion or a hostile government, or ready to serve as a threat which future ministers could use to intimidate the newspapers if they so wished. As the 2017 Conservative manifesto pledged, and as ConservativeHome has argued since the outset, the best protection for liberty would be to repeal Section 40 itself.