It’s almost a mantra now for the few people still resisting the modest and cautious reforms embodied in the Royal Charter: they keep saying that three centuries of press freedom in this country are under threat. Here is that claim in the Mirror, the Express, the Spectator and the Sun.
It is nonsense in two distinct ways. First, as explained here, here and here, the Royal Charter poses no threat to freedom of expression, only to the freedom of newspapers to bully, fabricate and intrude. (The Charter specifically states that no regulator should have power ‘to prevent the publication of any material, by anyone, at any time. . .’)
Second, as this letter published in the Guardian makes clear, it shows that those who make this claim don’t know the history of their own industry. The letter’s author, Professor James Curran, is the leading historian of the British press, and here is what he writes:
‘This absurd claim implies that we had a free press in 1790 when criticism of the social system was a criminal offence, and guilt or innocence could be determined solely by a judge.
‘It suggests that we had a free press in 1850 when the stamp, advertisement and paper duties were still fixed to price newspapers beyond the reach of ordinary people.
‘And it suggests that this embedded press freedom, hallowed by time, will come to an end with the introduction of a cheap and open system of redress for press victims, with a state-underpinned audit every few years to ensure that press self-regulation (unlike its predecessors) works.
‘This version of history is manifestly self-serving. Yet, the end of ‘300 hundred years of freedom’ canard is being repeated by a number of papers, not just the Express. This distortion helps to illuminate why, according to the 2010 Eurobarometer survey, the British public were the least disposed to trust its press, out of a total of 27 European countries.’
So, according to the principal academic authority on the subject, this claim is an absurd and manifestly self-serving canard that only worsens the distrust in which the press is held.
It is worth elaborating a little on the examples given by Professor Curran. In and around 1790 (by which time, according to the nonsense-peddlers, the British press had been free from political control for a century) proprietors and editors of newspapers, and their journalists, could be (and often were) jailed merely for publishing opinions about the way the country was run, or even for publishing the content of debates in Parliament.
People like Tom Paine, John Wilkes and William Cobbett railed against this stranglehold on publication, and all three were jailed or driven into exile at various times because of it. None of them would have recognised the idea that the press enjoyed freedom from political control or interference.
And at the same time newspapers were subject to taxes so punitive that only the rich could afford to buy them. For long periods this made it impossible to publish a newspaper that challenged the system without evading the taxes and thus risking imprisonment. And the ‘taxes on knowledge’ only came to an end in the 1850s – by which time the supposed era of press freedom was 150 years old.
It doesn’t end there. There are people alive today who can remember the banning of a national newspaper in this country. In 1941, under emergency powers, the Churchill government forbade publication of the Daily Worker because of its opinions on the Second World War. A year later Churchill had to be talked out of banning the Daily Mirror for the same reason.
You don’t even need a memory that long, because as recently as 2009 newspapers were arguing to MPs that the existence of a no-win-no-fee system giving some ordinary people the ability to sue papers for breaching their rights was an unacceptable constraint on press freedom.
The talk of 300 years of press freedom is not based on the facts but is an argument of convenience. Today these papers declare that the press has been free for centuries, but tomorrow, if it suits them, the same papers will insist with equal ardour that the press has never been free.
Professor Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off.