Professor Guglielmo Verdirame, King's College London, specialises in international law, and legal and political philosophy. He is one of the founders of the Templeton-funded Freedom Rights Project which explores what has gone wrong with human rights and how we can fix it. He practises as a barrister at 20 Essex Street chambers.
In its dying days, the regime of President Daniel arap Moi in Kenya established a Standing Committee on Human Rights. Not that President Moi had suddenly become passionate about human rights; it was just an exercise in international public relations. The Chairman of this Committee, when invited to address a conference, said this: “Free speech has to be put in context and interpreted against the background of what is right and what is wrong to say.” Some members of the audience swallowed hard. When I interviewed the Chairman afterwards, he explained: “There is no free speech for inaccurate statements”. “Who decides?” - I asked. “That’s one of the functions of the Government” was his reply.
The Royal Charter on the Press, with the two statutory amendments which – pace Mr Cameron – do underpin it, is founded on a similar misconception: that speech should be free only if ‘right’ or ‘accurate’.
This misconception will spread. It will penetrate institutions and change our free habits. Aided by uncertainty about the scope of application of the new regulation, an autocratic bureaucracy will emerge, not only in newspapers and but potentially also in all other organizations running “a website containing news-related material”. “Leveson officers” will be hired. Doubtless eager to justify their existence, they will guide, monitor, regulate, and on occasion terrify.