What does not touch the heart, or come home to the feelings, goes comparatively for little or nothing.
So wrote William Hazlitt in his 1826 essay ‘On Reason and Imagination’.
Hazlitt’s remarks capture the prevailing attitudes towards press freedom surrounding the Leveson inquiry.
Yes Leveson affirms press freedom in his press regulation proposals, yes the Prime Minister Cameron affirms press freedom in his opposition to Leveson’s proposals, and yet the cause of press freedom seems somehow distant amid all the formal affirmations.
Consider the Labour Party’s call-to-action on the Leveson report which portrays Ed Miliband stating:
On behalf of every decent citizen who wants protection for people like the Dowlers. Who wants a truly free press. A press that can expose abuse of power without abusing its own. We must act.
Strikingly the Labour leader Ed Miliband gives a name – the Dowlers – to the demand for press regulation, but gives no name to the idea of a free press. The anguish of Millie Dowler’s parents and others command our sympathies. Conversely, we do not know or no longer recall individuals who have suffered from restrictions on the press.
The Labour call-to-action encapsulates how the imperatives of press regulation are vivid and personal in Britain, while press freedom remains abstract.
Hazlitt writes how:
A benefit that exists merely in possibility, and is judged of only by the forced dictates of the understanding, is not a set-off against an evil… that strikes upon the senses, that haunts the imagination, and lacerates the human heart.
Leveson has promoted the voices of victims abused in the press and their calls for tougher regulation, not the testimonies of those silenced by an already circumscribed press.
As we struggle to imagine how the free press matters to our or others’ lives, and put any faces to the cause, insisting on a free unregulated press appears irresponsible and indifferent to human suffering.
Consider journalist Owen Jones’ recent tweet summarising his dilemma:
Hmm – who’s side am I going to take? Paul Dacre or the Dowler family? Think I’ll join over 115k others – you should too hackinginquiry.org
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) 2. Dezember 2012
Put the moral choice like that and who could disagree? We see here how the cause of freedom has become debased and linked to abuse. Indicatively, the Miliband call-to-action is being circulated with a link to a pro-Leveson regulation petition, but not to a free press initiative. And its ‘truly free press’ means a regulated press.
Meanwhile the broader cultural preference for regulation over a free unregulated press is illustrated in the numbers of people signing up to the on-line petition – already into the tens of thousands following the publication of the Leveson report. And when the head of Liberty, as a civil rights organisation, endorses the oxymoron of an ‘independent self-regulator’ overseeing the press’ self-regulation, then we can see that the cause of freedom has less moral hold culturally than the cause of regulation.
If our culture struggles to identify with the cause of the free press today, it was not always so. We have had eloquent testimonies to the cause of press freedom, from Milton’s 1844 Areopagitica to the Chartists to Mill’s On Liberty to Orwell’s Pen address. Hazlitt’s own writings resound with demands for liberty. Indeed his essay on ‘What is the People?’ defines the people inter alia by ‘a right to freedom, and a will to be free’.
Yet before we commit ourselves to the oxymoron of an ‘independent self-regulator’, we should examine how we understand the victims of press abuses. Families like the Dowlers and the McCanns were not simply victims of press abuses but of a broader cultural climate promoted by child experts and campaigning organisations instructing us to view all parents, including seemingly loving parents with suspicion. Such suspicious models fostered the wrongful convictions of women such as Sally Clarke whose two boys died of cot death. Tragically Sally Clarke never recovered from her ordeal and died a few years after her release.
It is this cultural climate viewing parents as abusers that legitimised the media investigating the bereaving parents and encouraged some individuals in the press to treat them as fair game to be snooped upon. Nevertheless, their awful experiences have been harnessed, not to campaign against this culture of suspicion, but to campaign for press regulation.
However, we might be more wary of judges invoking victims’ rights in their press regulation proposals if we recalled other parent victims who have suffered from judicial curbs on press freedom in the name of their children, namely parents unable to voice publicly their concerns over family court procedures, and the press unable to report on them. So while we hasten to codify our mistrust of the press, we might remember how a circumscribed and conformist press may be slower to uncover potential miscarriages of justice.
Vanessa Pupavac is the author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance.