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David T Breaker: Public demand for press regulation must be ignored

November 1947. The nation under the socialist tyranny of the first majority Labour government. Churchill watching powerlessly from the opposition benches, must have felt a bleak moment in time. Yes, the Allies had won the war, but Attlee had won the peace - or rather the right to shape the post-war settlement - and across the nation the old England that had survived the Blitz was being dissolved.

Gone was the Great Western, in was nationalised British Railways; out was the Empire and free trade, in was abandonment and protectionism; out were free markets, in was the state takeover of coal, steel, energy, road haulage, healthcare and any other industry that tempted the socialists. The economy in turmoil, a bad winter, rationing tightened and the joy of VE Day a distant faded memory: it must have felt, for all but a few, that the country ruined by the war was now in pursuit of its own final destruction, demolishing itself as rapidly as its planners demolished its historic town centres. When Churchill commented on the eleventh of that month in the Commons that "the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter" many must have disagreed. The best argument against democracy was, surely, the insanity being undertaken in every corner of the land.

I was reminded of that quote this week when, across the Internet, adverts from the Hacked Off campaign glibly announced that varying and vast percentages of voters backed "an independent press regulator established by law" - so-called "independent regulation with statutory underpinning" - and that a majority supported the findings of Leveson being implemented. Of course we could debate the polling, and question whether the phrasing was loaded to tilt the survey's results to suit the commissioner, but the same can be said for newspaper-commissioned polls (and indeed both camps appear to be playing this game) but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the celebrities have it. From Question Time to talk radio, Twitter to the comments on the websites of newspapers covering every demographic, it feels very much that just as Nadine Dorries wrote here at ConservativeHome "[the public] will be happy to see politicians impose and control legislating the press".

Such a suggestion was unimaginable a few years ago, and had you told me then that in 2012 I'd be writing about press regulation in England, I'd have laughed. Had you added that the majority of the public would be hugely supportive of such an idea - agitating for it, lobbying for it, signing petitions in their hundreds of thousands for it - I'd have called you crazy and referred you to a specialist for a check up from the neck up. "In England?" I would have said, "Never!" Yet having been bludgeoned by seemingly never-ending whining from celebrities at the Leveson hearings, that is the situation we find ourselves in - Bertrand Russell being right for a change that "Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who'll get the blame", the masses overwhelmingly pointing the finger of blame squarely at press freedom.

That the suggestions of the Leveson Report require a double dose of Orwellian doublethink - the acceptance of contradictory beliefs at the same time - doesn't seem to have been noticed, or at least doesn't seem to be bothering its supporters. They all claim to want a free press, even Lord Leveson - and seem to believe it - but in the greatest corruption of the English language that can be recalled then proceed to redefine that very concept, going as far to even say that their suggestions will strengthen the free press. As regulation is liberty, in the Levesonian mind, presumably "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength"?

Ignorance certainly seems to be the strength of the Levesonians, the public being largely convinced as they are that press regulation isn't an affront to liberty. If "the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all" - to quote JFK - then we are facing a threat to our security of a gargantuan magnitude. As I've written before here, essential freedoms such as speech and press are indivisible: you cannot have some freedom of the press, or a semi-free press, or a partly regulated low-fat non-hydrogenated decafinated gluten-free free press; you either have it, or you don't. Unfortunately, that is now a minority view in Britain.

Indeed, many argue that Leveson does not go far enough, but that the proposals are modest in the subjective eyes of some matters not one jot, for whatever the content by the mere act of legislating they are crossing a rubicon that opens the door to unspeakable actions and legitimizes further regulation. Even modest regulations may themselves be used to tighten control via the judicial system. We have seen how the Public Order Act and Electronic Communications Act gradually morphed into case law, deeming criminal words and actions never imagined their remit when drafted, by virtue of their ambiguous phrasing.

Any press regulator underpinned by statute would be likewise subject to our society's ever lowering threshold of offence, the press held hostage by the onwards march of political correctness. If Leveson's proposals are implemented the new regulator will, for starters, have the power to intervene in cases of "discriminatory reporting" - presumably as in broadcasting anything that isn't accepted by the dinner party leftists of Islington as fact, and when a publication "overly reflects" the opinions of its readership, with those dissenters - those that refuse to grant the regulator the whip hand - subject to "exemplary" and "punitive" fines.

How anyone can consider this a free press outside the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four astounds me. If we were to threaten religious dissenters with larger, grossly disproportionate punishments than conformists and levy upon them "exemplary" fines would we consider that freedom of religion? Under regulation, freedom of the press will be limited to those willing and able to afford punitive expenses.

Yet that doesn't change the fact that the majority of the public want such restrictions, and in our society where democracy is the one last value that is cherished - liberty long since forgotten - the masses seem not to understand the serious nature of crossing the press regulation line, nor understand why the democratic will isn't being heard. Some weak MPs may fall into line, yet we must remember that we are not an outright democracy, and that when Churchill stated that "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried" he was wrong.

Democracy is a terrible system of government, from its first experimentation in Athens - where the rights of the individual were entirely subjugated to the will of the people; where envy and hatred drove corruption and violence; where the experiment lasted less than a century and was defeated by the Spartans - through the French Revolution that so alarmed Edmund Burke, it has empowered and legitimised the prejudices of the masses. "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine," as Thomas Jefferson said, and as we are witnessing.

We are, however, not a pure democracy: we are a constitutional monarchy, or at least that is what we should believe as conservatives. Our ancestors fought a Civil War against absolute monarchy, and later fought a bloodless Glorious Revolution to usher in a new era of limited government guided by a Bill of Rights. That our ancestors omitted to restrict the power of the legislature when restricting the then executive monarchy, and forgot to place the Bill of Rights beyond simple majority amendment - the Lords back then a more effective check on the Commons - should not concern us: as conservatives, believers in small government and the existing order, we should consider ancient rights beyond reproach, as sacred, as fundamental to our national identity and existence.

So when those that have no care for the ancient liberties and freedoms of our nation seek to erode and corrode that which lies at the core of who we are - the freedoms of speech, press, expression - whether in Parliament or the electorate, whether minority or majority, conservatives must hold firm. These freedoms, as trivial and obscure as at times they are, as abused and indefensibly sometimes used, are insoluble; people have fought for them, because they're worth fighting for, and we must not now bow to the pressure or campaigning of anyone however much support they have. We must remember Oscar Wilde's quip that pure democracy means "the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people", and that - win or lose - must always stand with freedom, however lonely we may be.


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