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Leveson could signal end of our free, anarchic press

Form an orderly queue there, please.

Editors are jostling to be the first in the clink if the Government moves to introduce press regulation. Already, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has said he will not comply with any such statutory body, and is prepared to suffer the consequences – which could mean spending a few months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Other hacks are promising to desert print for the internet, where it is thought the Leveson Laws will not apply.

They’re all assuming that Lord Justice Leveson will today end Britain’s tradition of press freedom, which dates from 1695 when state licensing of newspapers was abolished. And they are almost certainly right. Lord Leveson is not bonkers. His report, published today, will be cogent and reasonable and will almost certainly call for a new independent system of press regulation, backed up by new laws, which the Prime Minister will find very difficult to reject.

During his lengthy inquiry, the Law Lord made it clear that the present system of self-regulation through the industry body, the Press Complaints Commission, was broken and that public confidence could only be restored by independent regulation of the press. All of the press. Opinion polls show overwhelming public support for regulation. This time it really is closing time in the last chance saloon – and PC Plod is about to come and chuck out the barflies.

As a working hack, I find talk of statutory controls deeply troubling. Not least because it seems to be Labour and Liberal spokespeople who are mustard-keen on press regulation, while it is the Tory ministers like Michael Gove and press barons like Rupert Murdoch who are standing for the principle of a free press. With friends like these... It is disturbing to see the Guardian newspaper, which broke the Milly Dowling story, and the National Union of Journalists arguing for a form of state regulation of newspapers.

Regulation can only mean, surely, that a new body – admittedly at arm’s length – will be empowered, effectively, to license publications, and possibly even license journalists. Certainly the new regulatory body would be in a position to levy fines and enforce the right of reply, and it will be a court of final appeal for people who feel they have been hard done by the press. Perhaps, indeed, the regulator will have to be consulted when a newspaper proposes to break the law, or bend the law, in the public interest. I’m thinking about use of covert recordings or phone hacking to expose fraud, wrongdoing and illegality. To catch a thief you set a thief.

The new head of Ofpress, if that is what it is to be called, will be guardian and arbiter of what truly is in the public interest. Can we be sure that he or she will condone the handing, say, of large sums of money to public officials to induce them to breach official secrecy and hand stolen property to journalists? And in case you’re wondering, that’s how the Daily Telegraph got possession of the CDs which revealed the MPs’ expenses scandal two years ago. I wonder.

But regulation is what the public want, and regulation is what we shall have. Of course it will be “arm’s length”, “independent”, “non-governmental”. The press regulator, perhaps on the Irish Press Council model, will not interfere in the day-to-day gathering and dissemination of news, and will be there merely to guard the public interest and collar wrong ’uns. Look at the BBC – it is regulated by Ofcom. Is that so bad? Isn’t the BBC precisely the model of the impartial responsible journalism we want? Well, aside from the Newsnight paedophile scandals, that is. Regulation doesn’t necessarily lead to better journalism – in the BBC it has led to bureaucracy and the abandonment of common sense.

The killer question, when it comes to using the law to control behaviour is: who regulates the regulator? Who will appoint the boss of Ofpress? The press? Only if the government of the day approves its short list. Ways will surely be found to ensure that whoever is in charge of regulating the press is someone acceptable to government. This is what has happened to the BBC in the eight years since the Hutton Report. The BBC is now governed by a trust, the members of which are appointed by The Queen in Council – in other words by government ministers.

I don’t believe that the press should be allowed to do what it wants. It is clear from the phone-hacking scandal that sections of the press in Britain are out of control. But it remains the case that there is nothing that the Murdoch mob did to Milly Dowler, Hugh Grant and other celebrities that was not already covered by the criminal law. If the police had done their job, the News of the World and its salacious spies would have been under lock and key long since for stalking, threatening behaviour, breach of the peace and breaching official secrecy. But this is all water under the Fleet Street bridge.

If regulation has to happen, better that it should be on the Irish model, which is explicitly built on libertarian principles and hands adjudication to an independent Press Ombudsman. Any bill to regulate the press should have on page one, line one a constitutional defence of freedom of speech, like the First Amendment to the US constitution. There will also, as Alex Salmond has said, have to be a separate Scottish Press Commission, because unlike broadcasting the press is not reserved to Westminster. We have a very robust history of press freedom in Scotland – through Spycatcher, Zircon, Ryan Giggs. The objective should be to allow ordinary people without the money to hire lawyers to get redress from the press.

But even with these protections we will have crossed a rubicon. Yes, the press only has itself to blame, but it will be the end of a long tradition of free, anarchic journalism. The legislation will also surely apply to the internet, which is an even more irresponsible medium of publication as we saw in the Lord McAlpine scandal. This may kill Twitter stone dead. You read it here first.

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