the freedom of the press

Many many years ago, I was news commissioning editor for a student newspaper.

I think it was quite a good student newspaper: the editorial team were all pretty good writers, and we spent most of our weekends rewriting the things people had contributed, to make sure the whole thing was of readable quality. The paper got a few scoops, a few awards, and one of our columnists even got a few death threats.

One night I sat behind some undergraduates on the student bus to Leamington, listening to them rave about how good one of my articles was. There was no photo next to the article, so they had no idea that it was me sitting right behind them; but it made me happy.

But in retrospect, the thing I am most proud of as a news editor was not something we published; it was something we didn’t publish. A name.

He was from Africa somewhere, I think. Or possibly South-East Asia.

We had all the details right there at the time: I remember thinking he had quite a distinctive name, although of course I don’t now remember what it was. He was an international student so we weren’t sure if he was going to be deported or tried in the UK, but we did know he was in big trouble. He had, it was alleged, downloaded a load of child pornography and then, forgetting that there was a campus intranet set up where everyone could access each others’ files, left them visible to every single other person on campus.

I’ve heard it argued that it is possible to exhibit a level of stupidity which borders on immorality; if this is true then he had been doubly immoral.

The story had everything that the reactionary press at the time went nuts for: a foreign immigrant (check) paedophile (check) student (check), coming over here and living in our very midst! The Daily Mail or the Express would have squealed with sensationalist joy over it. If only he’d been a single mother as well, it would have been the perfect story.

We had to publish it, of course – everyone was talking about it already and even though the whole thing felt uncomfortably like we were straying into Mail-lite territory, we would have been remiss as a newspaper if we had just ignored it. We ended up putting it on the front page, too, at the insistence of the Editor, who had the final say over these things. I seem to remember the write-up was something of a team effort, and unlike most front-page stories nobody particularly wanted their byline on it.

There was, however, one thing we didn’t have to publish: the actual identity of the young man who had been arrested.

We talked about it at very great length before going to press. Would it be better to publish all the details we could, including the foreign paedophile’s name? We checked the dubious expertise of the two Law undergraduates we called our ‘legal’ department, and they said there would be no legal problem with naming him. And people would want to know a name, it was argued. It would make the story a better story. The doctrine of the free press holds the principle that information must not be suppressed if people want to know it.

On the other hand, we thought – well, I thought – what actual good would it do? Who would it help? If the allegations were true, the kid was obviously a pervert, and people would want to know if there was a dangerous pervert roaming around campus. But the thing was, he hadn’t been officially convicted yet, and if he was convicted then he certainly wasn’t going to be around campus any more to be a danger to anyone. So naming him would hardly make things better.

And then, of course, there was the online edition. Our website was getting a lot of hits so we had reason to believe that anyone who googled his family name, anywhere in the world, would see our story. It would, inevitably, bring shame on his family in his home country. And we had no idea what other consequences.

We argued, and I made the case that while I agreed with the principle of a free press, when we weighed up the overall good to be gained against the overall harm to be done, then on this occasion the principle could go hang.

And so we voted on it.

The death of Lucy Meadows this week reduced me pretty much to a blubbering wreck. A blubbering, almost violently furious wreck.

And not just at Richard Littlejohn. Yes, he is a publically cunty figure and if I heard that he had befallen some terribly painful infection to his male genitals that he seems so keen to celebrate then I would laugh for many, many happy hours.

But Littlejohn wasn’t alone. Lucy Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission to complain about photographers and journalists outside her house at New Year, and Littlejohn hadn’t been one of them. There were many other newspapers which printed stories about her, and hadn’t broken any laws in doing so, so the police could do nothing.

And the PCC couldn’t do anything either, of course: they were an entirely useless organisation that couldn’t protect the contents of a sealed can of catfood from a cat with its claws removed. Or at least, it couldn’t protect the people who needed protecting. The PCC was a self-regulatory body, with no statutory legal backing, that was run by the newspapers themselves.

That was what Leveson said, wasn’t it? That self-regulation hadn’t worked, and that the result was that the press have “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people”?

But they haven’t done it because they want to; They have done it because they hold to the principle that if people want to know something – and they are prepared to buy your paper to find it out – then the press must have the freedom to tell them the truth, or at least whatever portion of it they want to hear, and it must be published.

At any cost.

John Stuart Mill, in his masterpiece On Liberty, gives a compelling defence of freedom of thought, speech and publication, with which I agree. He is (as am I) quite radically liberal on the freedom of genuine, open thought and discussion; far more liberal than most of the journalists and politicians who have grumbled, in their classically fallacious slippery-slope-argument way, about the ‘rubicon of press regulation being crossed’.

But even Mill does not argue for 100% untrammelled freedom of speech:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Mill could be easily misinterpreted here to say that circulating hateful views through the press is permissible, while delivering them “orally to an excited mob” would not. But this is to miss Mill’s point.

What Mill is saying is that we should be permitted to say, print, sing, whatever you like, as long as it is not likely to cause harm to others. By all means defend your views, your interests, and the interests of those you care about – and of course, if this involves publishing angry articles about the policies of your government or state in order to hold them accountable, then we must be free to do this.

But do not think that a defence of free expression must be unlimited. It must be limited, and limited by a more basic principle – the principle that we must try not to bring about harmful consequences to others for no good reason.

The principle of a free press is absolutely worth holding in a liberal society, most of the time. But principles are only worth adhering to, to they extent that they bring about the best consequences in real situations.

A more basic principle is that no principle at all can be beyond scrutiny by its consequences. When you don’t know how many harmful consequences will be caused by adherence to that principle, but you have reason to believe it will do more to fuck up the lives of innocent people than it will do good, then it is the principle that has to be lost.

The principle of a free press says that the press must be able to publish whatever they like as long as it isn’t false, and many journalists believe that principle is so important that it comes before the consequences, or before any other principles which might be relevant.

Like, the principle that one should not doorstep people after personal tragedies. Or the principle that one should not bully people over their gender to the point of suicide.

Or the very basic principle of just not trying to fuck up innocent peoples’ lives when they aren’t really harming anyone. (And no, a teacher changing their gender does not, by itself, harm schoolchildren. Not like constant barrackings in the press can really harm someone).

It seems so obviously wrong to most of us to think that the principle of a free press might trump the principle of not fucking up innocent people’s lives. But a lot of journalists don’t mind fucking up people’s lives. Because a lot of journalists are bastards.

The difference between liberalism and anarchy is that liberalism – unlike anarchism – recognises that for most of us to be free, we do need to try and stop the bastards. Because bastards, as we know, can’t regulate themselves.

I won the vote, and while we published the story, we didn’t publish the name of the paedophile student.

And I was pleased – not for the kid himself, he would have deserved it. But his family didn’t deserve to have their name associated across the internet with something like that. Not when it would have done no good to anyone at all. And that student newspaper, which I loved, deserved better than to be reduced to seedy xenophobia-tinted tittle-tattle.

On that occasion, we regulated ourselves. Only one of us voted to name the guy. (It’s not a coincidence that he is the only one who went on to work as a professional news journalist.)

A few weeks later, a former writer for the student paper came back from his work experience at the Express to give us some ‘training’. He kept asking, why we didn’t name the paedophile? Why didn’t we name him?

I explained our reasoning.

But you could have named him, he kept saying. You should have named him!

I explained again.

And then he explained, that if we had competition from another paper, we would have named him. We would have had to. And that anyone who wants to be a successful journalist had to be prepared to do that kind of thing if they wanted to succeed.

At the time, he said this in a way which was so arrogant that I wanted to punch him right in his nasty troublemaking hack mouth. But afterwards I had to acknowledge that he was right.

I had wanted to be a journalist since I was thirteen. I loved working for that student newspaper more than I had loved almost anything I’d done before that. But after that day, I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist any more. And instead, I became a teacher.

I guess my point is that I’m glad that the government seem to have now recognised that the press need proper regulation, and hopefully the Royal Charter solution will get us some way there.

But there is also this: that there may be precious little to console the pure, bitter rage many of us are feeling that some fucking evil bastard journalists have managed to destroy a teacher this week. But for me, there is some small consolation to think there was at least one occasion where they created one.

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