How British politicians might chill the press

dog-on-leash

I promised a comment on what form political intimidation of the press might take, under the new system of regulation.

The provisions in the Royal Charter for press regulation, and the associated sections of the Crime & Courts Act 2013, are complex and layered. There are buffers between the politicians (and the wider ‘establishment’) and the press. There are plans for an arbitration service and a body that oversees the regulator, which in turn will try to keep the press both strong and honest.

Supporters of these provisions have emphasised that the politicians will not be able to censor the newspapers or stop stories from being published.

But free expression issues do not begin and end with formal state censorship that we see in hideous regimes like China, Iran or Zimbabwe. There are much subtler ways of exerting pressure on publishers, that nevertheless ‘chill’ (i.e. discourage) the exercise of free speech.

What form might this take?  Look no further than last weekend, when The Rt. Hon. Grant Schapps MP, Chairman of the ruling Conservative Party, had a pop at the BBC in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph.

In a major intervention understood to have been made with the knowledge of Downing Street, he said that the Government would consider whether the BBC can keep receiving all the proceeds of the licence fee – £145.50 each year from every household with a television – after 2016, when its Royal Charter expires.

Mr Schapps says that the BBC needs to “rebuild trust” and have a new “culture of openness”

This seems rather benign.  And maybe Mr Schapps has a point.  The BBC does take a lot of public money, after all.  Meanwhile, the actual process by which the BBC’s funding could be cut would be an incredibly complex and drawn out business (involving public surveys, consultations, accountants, the broadcast and journalist unions, and probably some kind of commission).  Its not the sort of thing that Ministers could do on a whim, should (say) the BBC Radio 4 Today programme run a story that angers Number 10 Downing Street Director of Communications.

But crucially, that does not stop Ministers making these kinds of comments.  They do it all the time.  (A quick Google search reveals: Ed Vaizey, 2012; Fiona Hyslop, 2011; Jeremy Hunt, 2010Ben Bradshaw, 2009; Oh, and apparently, Harold Wilson, 1974).  It seems to be a part of our national life, an annual British ritual like Trooping the Colour or Strictly Come Dancing.

Why?  To keep the BBC in check.  These regular statements force the BBC to continually defend its very existence.  They are a way of the politicians asserting the fact that they do have the power to disrupt or abolish the corporation (established by a Royal Charter, remember!) should they wish it.  We all doubt very much that any politician would choose that nuclear option, but nevertheless, the sniping disrupts the journalism.  The BBC orientates itself in such a way as to ruffle fewer feathers.

Our newspaper editors will soon be afflicted with this mentality.  If and when the Royal Charter for press regulation comes to fruition, I predict the inauguration of a new British tradition of politicians sniping at the press.  There will be no ‘Board of Censorship’, or formal state interference with the press.  But there will be regular Ministerial interviews that innocently suggest we need to “review” the regulator, and perennial hints that stronger regulation might be needed.  Subtle, but passive-agressive.  Not so strong as to cause public outrage… but enough to induce anxiety and caution in the editors’ offices.  The Chill.

This kind of dog-whistle politics will become a fact of British journalism.  The result will not be a muzzled press, but a neutered press.  This is of grave concern, because our democracy needs newspapers with bite.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *