Anyone reading the reaction from certain parts of the Fourth Estate to an amendment to the Defamation Bill passed by the House of Lords recently would have concluded that free speech was in mortal danger. Moreover, there were only a few days left to save this precious freedom. It was an event never before seen in a Parliamentary democracy.
What could possibly have brought this situation about? Ah well. The amendment passed by the Lords makes provision for a low-cost arbitration service and what is in effect an independent press regulator. Those last three words, as ever, have frightened the crap out of editors and proprietors: a regulator that is independent and not subject to their control is unthinkable.
There is no “threat to free speech”, though, not that readers would have been made aware of this inconvenient fact, such was the phalanx of punditry lined up to regurgitate the agreed message. Typical was the loathsome Toby Young, who, noting that Lord Puttnam had sponsored the amendments he so disliked, decreed that he was a “Luvvie for Leveson”.
Following Tobes in directing readers to “look over there” was Tracey Brown, given a platform by the deeply subversive Guardian’s Comment Is Free. The defamation bill was, she told, “now in thrall to a politically motivated Leveson clause”. Yes, properly independent press regulation is clearly A Very Bad Thing. How bad? You need to look no further than the Super Soaraway Currant Bun.
“Five days to save free speech” howled Rupe’s downmarket troops, adding “Amendments to libel bill must be killed”. Not so fast, Meester Leveson-Bond! Lord Lester was given a platform by the Murdoch press to protest about his bill being used to do things that were, by complete and fortunate coincidence, not to the liking of, er, the Murdochs and like minded people.
And what did the Robert Mugabe of Fleet Street make of it all? As if you need to ask: “A curb on a free Press never seen in a democracy: Leading peer attacks Labour attempt to shackle media” thundered the Mail headline. It was Labour’s fault (check!), the obligatory keywords “free”, “democracy” and “shackled” were deployed (check!), and poor Mr Dacre was portrayed as the victim (check!).
Thus the sight of the press, frightened and paranoid at the thought that their attempt to see off independent regulation might have failed. It’s got nothing to do with free speech, but once again has everything to do with the Fourth Estate no longer having the ability to use the press regulator as a doormat.
And that is what should be borne in mind before giving this crowd the time of day.