Special comment: On the Eve of Leveson vote

On the evening of Monday March 18, the House of Commons will vote on whether to impose statutory regulation on our free press.

At a stroke it would break with 300 years of tradition. In this special comment, we argue that in a civilised democracy this is entirely the wrong approach.

“I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it,” Voltaire is famously said to have uttered.

George Orwell borrowed the line in his proposed preface to Animal Farm, entitled the Freedom of the Press. He concluded by adding his own version of it: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Britain, with one or two notable exceptions in history, has avoided civil war and public unrest because at the heart of its democracy has been a free speech embodied in a free press.

Indeed for 300 years Parliament has not sought to shackle our newspapers and magazines in any way, save through Draconian defamation laws and to a lesser extent Contempt of Court legislation. But on Monday March 18, all that is likely to change.

In the wake of the phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson inquiry, Parliament seems determined to overturn centuries of freedom in a knee-jerk reaction to the alleged illegal activities of one or two national tabloid newspapers.

There can be no greater self-inflicted attack on our prized democracy in my view.

Of course, no-one condones phone-hacking and the appalling impact it had on its victims.

But laws already existed to deal with such illegal behaviour. The issue there was a lack of enforcement not a deficit of statute.

Quite apart from this, the vast majority of the British media - most notably its 1,100 local and regional newspapers - have always behaved honourably. They have policed themselves effectively and efficiently through the Press Complaints Commission and have rigorously enforced their own Code of Conduct.

This newspaper and its parent company Johnston Press, for example, have been committed to the PCC from the outset - enshrined in the contracts of employment of all its journalists.

But the new proposals which will effect equally the smallest local weekly to the largest national daily will ultimately bring with them such horrific bureaucracy that there is a real risk that many editors will be submerged. Ultimately, anything contentious or remotely investigative will be open to such widespread challenge that our papers will be anaemic - packed with government-inspired press handouts.

Do we really want Britain to emulate the worst and most corrupt of the world’s tinpot juntas?

A free press, with all its many faults, has done more to keep democracy alive than any other force.

If the media is to perform its function it must be entirely independent of statute. Of course it will make mistakes; inevitably it will cause upset. But its strength comes from these inherent potential failings. We must trust the public to reach their own conclusions and to have a voice. If we do not we will lose much that defines us as civilised.

In the wake of Leveson the newspaper industry itself has proposed a new, tough independent regulatory process - which goes far beyond the requirements of 90 per cent of our media.

Yet still the House of Commons seems determined enact statute to eventually influence every aspect of our operations.

The Prime Minister David Cameron has displayed remarkable courage in standing up for free speech but it seems unlikely he will prevail on Monday evening. The Lib Dems - historically staunch defenders of civil liberties and individual freedoms and rights - seem set to join forces with Labour in appeasing a small but vocal minority.

But the papers that will pay the price will be the trusted small weekly titles the length and breadth of Britain. Titles like this newspaper - which are already seeking to navigate through the perfect storm of digital competition, recession, and rising production costs.

Meanwhile an unregulated social media and offshore digital media are free to publish whatever they wish - with none of the checks on accuracy, balance, or good taste that your local paper has enforced for decades. And with none of its accountability either.

If you care about freedom of the press it is still not too late to act you can email your MP before Monday night’s vote.

It is not our place to ask MPs to vote in our interests, they will do what they feel is right but it is important that legislation which is drafted in the wake of misdemeanours by national papers is not allowed to impact papers which have never and would never engage in such practices. Let the law run its course against those who are proven to have broken it.

And one final thought... how do we know about the phone hacking scandal? How was it pushed into the public spotlight? By a newspaper of course - principally the Guardian - perhaps the most successful illustration of industry self regulation there has been.