The suggestion is occasionally made (see here, here and here) that Britain should think again about its new Royal Charter on press self-regulation because foreign dictators or authoritarian governments have cited it, or may cite it, as a justification for censorship.
This is muddled thinking.
First, there is no relationship between the Royal Charter and censorship. On the contrary, the Charter painstakingly safeguards freedom of expression in this country and even enhances the freedom of investigative journalists to do their job. Better still, for the first time it bars party politicians from involvement in any aspect of the self-regulatory system. (These people support the Charter.)
As for the Leveson Report, far from suggesting a gag on the press it urged the British Parliament to pass a statute similar in aim to the US First Amendment, strengthening press freedom. (Sadly, and for reasons of their own, the UK press did not want this.)
So the Leveson-based Royal Charter, properly understood, can be no help whatsoever to foreign dictators. If they copied it in their own countries they would find that, instead of making their newspapers obedient, they had freed them to be more challenging.
Despite all of this we are told that authoritarians in countries from Ecuador to Pakistan have tried to use the Charter as an excuse to curb press freedom, and the suggestion has been made that on this basis alone – the fact that the Charter is capable of being misconstrued – Britain should think again.
This thinking is even more muddled.
The implication is that, in order to deny dictators a wholly unfounded pretext for behaving badly, Britain should abandon a legal, justified and sensible course of action designed to protect its citizens from a form of corporate abuse. British citizens, in other words, should be exposed to further injustice and ill-treatment at the hands of British newspapers in the hope that this will prevent foreign dictators from doing something bad.
Besides being crazy and wrong, this would not work. Making Britain a more unjust society will never make Zimbabwe or North Korea into more just ones.
If dictators and would-be dictators choose to misrepresent to their citizens what is happening in the UK, surely the appropriate response is to confront those dictators with the truth, showing that Britain is careful and smart enough to protect its citizens from harm while at the same time safeguarding freedom of expression?
In fact, this entire argument misses the point.
The challenge is not what dictators might think and say, because they don’t actually require an alibi of this kind before they gag their press or lie. The challenge is to overcome the effects around the world of the false propaganda – spread by the Times, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and their friends – suggesting that the Charter is something that it is not.
Britain’s biggest national newspaper groups have been telling the world for months that Leveson was a plot against press freedom and that the Royal Charter was something Stalin would have employed. Their aim in spreading this nonsense is to scare people into allowing them to go on inflicting harm on ordinary British citizens with impunity.
These are the same papers that rejected a British First Amendment law and the same papers that egged on the British government when it persecuted the Guardian for its brave reporting of the Snowden revelations. Their concern for press freedom is a narrow one, and mostly relates to the freedoms to bully, lie, distort and intrude.