I have long believed that any true democracy needs a free press, a press that is free to criticise the government of the day or its opposition, a press that is free to conduct investigations into potential scandals - and a press that is subject to the law of the land. In order for the press to be completely free, politicians, whether they be national figures or local, must be restrained from interfering in the day to day activities of newspapers and broadcasters.
This whole matter has been exercising minds in the United Kingdom - minds far better than mine and far more influential than mine - over the past . . . well, I was going to say months but in fact it is really a couple of years or more. But things have come to the boil in the last few days. Two things have come about to cause this: the trial has started of two prominent one-time newspaper editors (amongst others) accused of knowing about and encouraging phone hacking and of hiding evidence during a police investigation; and the signing of a Royal Charter to establish a press watchdog.
This all started because one (or more) newspaper was found to have been hacking into the mobile phone calls of numerous people - celebrities of stage and screen, royalty and even a murdered schoolgirl. The hacking is not alleged, it has been admitted and one newspaper was closed by its owner. It is the editors of that newspaper who are at present on trial. A public enquiry was held, headed up by Lord Justice Leveson, and the Government has decided that the long-standing self-regulatory body established by the newspaper industry lacks power. They, the politicians, came to the conclusion that a body established by Royal Charter and whose powers are laid down by politicians is the way forward. The newspaper industry disputes this and has set up a new regulatory body with greater powers than the Press Complaints Commission had. At first, the Government was minded to make it so potentially costly for newspapers not to sign up to their regulatory body that it would become, ipso facto, the body, leaving the alternative to languish. But the newspapers are being bloody-minded, so it seems that the Government may be about to concede.
I have to say that, as with the newspapers, I do not like the idea of a body set up by Royal Charter. The sticking point for me, as for the newspaper industry, is that politicians will be able to change the rules. That, to me, is a step too far and represents the thin end of the wedge. Our MPs were very upset when, a few years ago, a press investigation revealed how so many of them had been blatantly dishonest in claiming expenses to which they were not entitled and how the rules allowed what were, basically, fiddles. And they want to control the body that controls the press?
There are already laws concerning libel and all manner of other matters. These should be sufficient for the prosecution of people or newspapers accused of malfeasance. Extra quasi-laws brought in by a regulatory body are hardly necessary.
Of course, I must admit to a certain bias in this matter. I worked for several years in the newspaper industry, although my job was on the administrative rather than the editorial side. I was a member of the council of the Newspaper Society for much of my time in the industry, which just emphasises how biased I am. But then, so are the politicians caught with their snouts well and truly in the trough.
A November sky.