In the 6th Century BC the Greek poet Theognis of Megara, writing of the myth of Pandora’s box, detailed how awful mankind had become, how far we had fallen:
"Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men's judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety."
It’s a tale as old as time, that we’re on a recent fall from grace, but it somehow still draws in supporters. And the same arguments made in the 6th Century against the failings of mankind are made today of the press by its detractors. They argue while the press was once a true and noble force it now can’t be trusted, that it has overstepped the mark with our precious celebrities, that it no longer recognises the old noble ways and must now be reigned in.
No; No; and No again.
The Leveson Inquiry looks to have been a pandora’s box for the fight for press freedom. After the initial multi million pound inquiry (estimated to have cost taxpayers £5.4m and the industry £43.7m), leftover sections of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 continue to threaten our free press.
Mrs Thatcher was onto something when she said “you may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” And perhaps we should all expect sly politicians to use a wholly separate bill on data protection to sneak in the old proposal for papers to bear the cost of all legal cases brought against them (even when they win, and no matter how spurious the allegation).
The other option open to papers, under the amendment that sees implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, would mean papers forced to sign up to a state-recognised regulator of the press. One of the regulators licensed by the state is Impress, set up and bankrolled by the backers of the legislation and anti-press campaigner Max Mosley.
The press has been free of licensing by the crown since 1695, free of a secretary of state issuing warrant against authors or papers they accuse of libel and free of duties payable since 1870. That this is being brought up as an idea again now is both sad and worrying.
Those in the Commons and Lords should know the public are well aware of the benefits of a free press and also know the stifling effects this law could have on it. A public consultation on the issue in 2016 saw 174,730 responses, with 79% wanting Section 40 to be repealed in full and just 7% wanting it implemented. The most common reason given to repeal it was the worry of the ‘chilling effect’ it would have on the freedom of the press.
We’ve argued before of the value of a free press that prints with neither fear nor favour, that keeps the powerful honest and all of us in the loop. None of that has changed, its importance to us grows as more and more consume media in more and more varied forms.
While we can never put the evils of the world back in Pandora’s Box, this is not true of MP’s actions on the press. They can begin by shooting down Tom Watson and Ed Miliband’s amendments today, and then by repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. If politicians fail to act this will keep being snuck in by those that hold vendettas against the press. They only need to win once to snuff out our free press.
Update: MPs narrowly defeated Ed Miliband's amendment and, after the SNP said they would abstain, Watsons withdrew his. This is a temporary win though, until Section 40 is repealed the press remains under threat.