The BBC Needs a Free Press

The corporation and right-wing newspapers must stick together for the sake of media freedom

Media Screen
I'm no threat: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger appears before the Home Affairs Select Committee

I could recite from memory a scene from A Man for All Seasons for years after I saw Robert Bolt’s play. An ardent young man called William Roper is telling Thomas More that he must arrest a spy working for his enemies at Henry VIII’s court. More refuses, even though he knows Roper is right. He is the Lord Chancellor of England. He has sworn to uphold the law, and the spy has committed no crime. “So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!” cries the exasperated Roper. 

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast-man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it-d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

The idea of freedom of speech is in a dangerously enfeebled condition in Britain. Hardly anyone understands why no editor has agreed to comply with the state’s attempt to regulate the press — a measure which takes us back, if not to the court of Henry VIII, then at least to the Stuarts and Presbyterians John Milton fought. “But the BBC is regulated,” people lecture me in a voice of irritated incomprehension. “It is not in the government pocket, or a propagandistic state broadcaster. On the contrary, it is impartial and far less propagandistic than half the newspapers and websites you are perversely seeking to defend.”

I try to tell them that the BBC keeps its independence because a forest of free institutions surrounds it. Allow the state to fell the trees and a cold wind will blow through the corporation. No one should doubt that the state is now sharpening its axe and running its finger along the blade. The celebrities and media studies academics at Hacked Off have pushed the politicians into illiberalism — not, I should add, that our leaders required much of a shove.

Mark Damazer, the former Controller of Radio 4, gave me a wonderful comparison to explain the extremism of our times. Hacked Off became like the Ulster Unionists, he said. It could not accept that it had won.

Just so. By the end of the Leveson Inquiry, Hacked Off could have had 90 per cent of what it wanted, which in politics or any other form of human endeavour is more than anyone can reasonably expect.

But its paranoia, its Ulsterman’s determination to live in a state of perpetual victimhood, drove Hacked Off to make the fateful demand that the state should regulate writing. With the support, lest we forget, of virtually every MP, it opened the possibility of permanent political surveillance of English letters for the first time since 1695. As it stands, a two-thirds majority in Parliament can amend the Privy Council’s appropriately anachronistic Royal Charter on the press. As its reaction to the Leveson report showed there is almost a three-thirds majority for censorship in Parliament, no one believes that an energetic political clique, determined to extend its control, will find that barrier hard to leap. Not just Rupert Murdoch’s hired help but editors who have never wasted a second of their lives on celebrities — editors indeed, in the case of the Guardian and Private Eye, who have exposed the tabloids’ wrongdoing-cannot accept this threat to fundamental freedoms.

In refusing to bend the knee, editors are also defending the BBC. To say this may sound absurd given the vindictive and unhinged attacks on the corporation from the right-wing press. So allow me to explain.

State-funded broadcasters could never break a story like the Guardian‘s revelations about the intelligence agencies or the Telegraph‘s exposé of MPs’ expenses. The government would put insupportable political pressure on the BBC’s managers and regulators to stop the broadcasts. As the BBC’s funding comes from the state, and as the state has the power to amend the BBC’s Royal Charter, the BBC would have to submit.

Few realise the extent of the state’s potential power over the corporation because it does not matter now. Who cares if the BBC cannot take the risk of breaking stories about MPs’ self-enrichment or state surveillance, when it can follow up the revelations of others? If a minister were to tell them to stop, Chris Patten and Tony Hall would dismiss the demand as ridiculous. The story was out there. Nothing the BBC said or did could change that.

The suppression that could follow the extension of royal charters threatens the old division of labour. I saw how ugly the future may become at the Home Affairs Committee’s confrontation with Alan Rusbridger, editor of the  Guardian. Journalists from all over the world wondered what the hell Britain thought it was doing. The Guardian thought it had to prepare a full-scale defence. As it was the “inquisition” was a lame affair. Rusbridger explained in a measured voice how he had not threatened national security. MPs shouted at him but they landed no blows and the tension left the room, as it was always bound to, and we all shrugged our shoulders and left.

What were the politicians going to do? The presumptuous Royal Charter announcing that the Queen  intended to regulate what editors and writers could say had not come into force. Rusbridger remained a free journalist in a free country. If the state wanted to stop him, it could not turn for help to some Leveson quango. It would have to prosecute him under the laws of England. And that it will never do because it knows that there isn’t a jury in the land that will convict Rusbridger.

How much longer will freedom last if the celebrities get their way? Not just the freedom of the press, but of the BBC as well? Chris Patten at least senses the danger. He told Lord Justice Leveson that for better and worse the press could do what the BBC could not, and he did not want politicians “getting involved in determining matters of free speech”. Perhaps I am reading too much into  his comments, but I suspect Patten at least understands that the BBC could not “stand upright in the winds that would blow” if they did.