There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship. They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not. Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.
I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”. Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris. If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood. They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.
I think this pertinent Tweet describes the conundrum that Hacked Off face.
Steve Coogan & Hacked Off are not pro-censorship, it's just that there's no way to achieve their understandable aims w/out censorship
— Dr Mike Ward (@Schroedinger99) June 13, 2014
What the Hacked Off advocates of the Royal Charter do not seem to appreciate is the risk of ‘chill’ on this issue. This will not begin with bolshy national journalists like Nick Cohen or Richard Pendlebury, but with regional journalists working on struggling local papers, who are less sure of their position.
I also found Steve Hewlett’s analysis last year quite persuasive:
The potential issue here is not so much that the politicians will use their theoretical powers to dive in and start dictating new terms to suit themselves, but almost the reverse. The chances are that the charter will need amending to keep up with the fast-changing media landscape. Under this scheme, this will require the agreement of political majorities all round, thus forcing the press into the kind of give-and-take relationship with politicians so familiar in the statute-regulated world of broadcasting.
A government special advisors have already made threats to The Daily Telegraph over its coverage of Maria Miller’s expenses. And I’ve written before about how Ministers regularly send shots across the bow of the BBC by saying “it may be time to review the licence fee”.
We should also be mindful of the David Kelly affair: a much more egregious interference into broadcast reporting. I think the Blair government response would have been very different if Andrew Gilligan had been working for a newspaper. In the event, Gilligan, Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke all resigned over a story that was clearly in the public interest… and clearly true.
Hewlett also makes the point that the two-thirds majority to change the Royal Charter could be easily achieved in a moment of high controversy. What’s to stop the next parliament inserting new clauses into the Royal Charter or the (coercive) Crime & Courts Act 2013?
So yeah—the Royal Charter and the relevant sections of the Crime & Courts Act do not amount to North Korea-style censorship. But they do represent the seeding of a chill, a neutering, a hindrance, a lets-be-on-the-safe-side attitude. And they will embolden politicians to start making veiled threats towards newspapers. Hacked Off is well-meaning, but it has become an unwitting, pro-self-censorship lobby.
1. This is another of those posts where I think it may be necessary to re-emphasise this website’s standard disclaimer, which is that what I write here is posted in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of English PEN.