The Australian, 10 March 2012

What is behind today’s cavalier attitude towards freedom of the press?

In Britain and Australia, that liberty, long considered essential in a civilised society, is now treated with shoulder-shrugging indifference by huge chunks of the chattering classes.

In London, the Leveson inquiry into press ethics continues to titillate tabloid-haters, inviting everyone from celebrities to coppers to fantasise in public about punishing the red-tops.

The general sentiment behind Leveson was summed up by its chief cheerleader, actor Hugh Grant. Sounding like a 10-year-old organising a game of cowboys and indians, Grant said the British press can be split into “goodies” and “baddies”. And he reckons it is high time the “baddies” - the tabloids, of course - were “run out into the North Sea”.

That outlook is now widespread among the great and the good in Britain, who seem oblivious to the fact that true press freedom must include the right of “baddies” as well as “goodies” to publish what they see fit.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the Finkelstein inquiry into the media has proposed a News Media Council.

Like a PC Ministry of Truth, such a council, if it were to come to pass, would grant the authorities the right to reprimand any newspaper, radio or online outlet that it felt was being “irresponsible”.

It would represent a terrifying poking of officialdom’s snout into the worlds of publishing and free, open debate.

What Leveson and Finkelstein really reveal is how feeble our attachment to the ideal of press freedom has become in the 21st century.

Many have pointed out that it is unlikely Finkelstein’s proposals will be fully implemented and it is possible Leveson will lead merely (I say merely) to the strengthening of Britain’s already-existing Press Complaints Commission.

But that is to miss the point. It is not the final outcome of these press-investigating institutions that is important, but the fact that they exist at all, the fact that in both Britain and Australia the political classes felt little compunction about organising inquiries-cum-showtrials into the ethics of the media.

This suggests that today’s bourgeoisie - in glaring contrast to the original and radical bourgeoisie, who created the modern world - are indifferent to the ideal of press freedom.

They cannot fathom why it might be important. They are incapable of understanding its worth and import. They nonchalantly nod when lords and QCs are given the authority to sit in judgment on the media.

This lackadaisical attitude towards press freedom among the liberal elite points to some tectonic shifts in modern liberal democracies. It reveals that we’re now faced with something more profound than simply an anti-tabloid witch-hunt or mere political vengeance against the media - rather we’re witnessing the unravelling of many of the values and virtues of the modern era.

It is difficult to overstate how important the idea of press freedom was to the birth of the modern world, to the shift from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Every radical and philosopher worth his or her salt, all the men and women whose words and actions in the 17th and 18th centuries rocketed the Western world from monarchism towards democracy, was passionate about press freedom. The liberty of men to write and publish what they saw fit was a key demand of all the firebrands who were sick of the stultifying Old World.

In the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, one of the earliest clashes in this epoch-defining war between the old and the new, the most radical activists, the Levellers, made press freedom a key rallying cry.

Implacably opposed to the state’s system of licensing for the press, where every publisher required the say-so of the authorities, the Levellers demanded complete liberty of the press. They recognised that only the full freedom to publish would let ordinary people exercise their sovereign power against “Tyrannie”.

As a 1649 Leveller pamphlet put it: “What may not be done to that people who may not speak or write, but at the pleasure of Licensers?”

And yet, remarkably, there is now a serious debate in Britain about reintroducing press licensing, turning the clock back 350 years and once more depriving people of the liberty to publish except “at the pleasure of Licensers”.

The authors of the American Revolution of the late 1700s, inspired by English radicals, likewise made press freedom a central plank of their new world.

In the 1789 Bill of Rights, the very first amendment sanctified press freedom, insisting “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press”.

The key thinkers of the period of Enlightenment that ignited those revolutions all talked about the centrality of press freedom to the new world. From Voltaire to Kant to John Stuart Mill, the most enlightened of modern men believed the press should be absolutely free of state meddling.

They saw freedom of the press as being bound up with the promotion of reason and rationality. As a recent academic study of Kant pointed out, “Kant staked a great deal on the power of the free press to bring about enlightenment”.

In 1788, Frederick William II, the King of the German empire of Prussia, sought to clamp down on press freedom. Sounding like an early version of Lord Leveson, or perhaps a more regal Hugh Grant, he complained about the “licentiousness” of the press and said “press freedom has degenerated into press impudence”.

Kant was outraged, stating what was then considered to be a basic tenet of progressive thought: “The citizen must be free to inform the public of his views.”

Why did the radicals and philosophers of the Enlightenment put so much store by the ideal of press freedom? Because, perhaps more than anything else, the liberation of speech and publishing from the stranglehold of the authorities, from the grip of kings and other tyrants who dominated the old world, spoke to the emergence of a new, better, more democratic egalitarian era.

In promoting press freedom, these radicals were expressing their opposition to the concentration of knowledge and power in the hands of a few and also their faith in the ability of ordinary people to handle tough ideas.

The value that they attached to press freedom really spoke to the value they attached to the mass of society, to that traditionally ignored or mocked blob of people, who in the new world were to have as much right as anybody else to read and write and to share in the intellectual and political life of their nations.

This is where we get to the heart of what has changed in recent years. If the old bourgeoisie’s support for press freedom spoke to their faith in mankind, then the new bourgeoisie’s disdain for press freedom reveals their suspicion of mankind.

The declining status of press freedom really exposes the declining status of the values of the Enlightenment era. So where the radical bourgeoisie demanded the liberation of thought and publishing from the fists of the elite, today’s bourgeoise call on lords and QCs to define “the public interest” that is, tell people what they ought to be interested in and what they may and may not know.

Where the warriors for Enlightenment trusted that we mere mortals were capable of distinguishing good ideas from bad, of exercising reason and using judgment, the modern miserabilists of the smart set believe we can be turned racist or sexist or stupid by “irresponsible” tabloid reporting.

Where you stand on press freedom reveals where you stand on democracy itself, on reason, Enlightenment and progress.

And if the current indifference to press freedom is anything to go by, then it seems clear our “betters” in the here and now don’t only distrust the tabloids; they also distrust man himself, seeing us as unreasonable creatures who perhaps require a king, or at least a QC, to govern our lives.

Read more of my articles for spiked and other publications here.