Today, however, we saw a glimpse of the future – if politicians and Hacked Off get their way and give MPs a legal foothold in the way the Press is run.
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian – the newspaper which, along with the New York Times, did much of the digging to uncover the phone hacking scandal which led to the Leveson Inquiry and the current real threats to Press freedom which followed the conclusion of the inquiry – was before the Home Affairs Select Committee in Westminster.
He was there to answer questions on the Guardian’s publication of the files handed to them from Edward Snowden, which appear to show a worrying level of interest from intelligence agencies in our day-to-day communications.
I’ve no problem with questions being asked of journalism, and welcome new ways to hold us to account. But what we saw at the Home Affairs Select Committee was quite frightening – and a sign of things to come, I fear.
It’s one thing to ask a newspaper editor why he chose to publish a story, what risks he considered before published and what advice he took, it’s quite another to ask: “Do you love your country?”
In asking that question, Keith Vaz, chairman of the select committee, proved the point that all journalists fearful of what a Royal Charter could mean have been making for months.
Mr Vaz – no stranger to press scrutiny – is perfectly within his rights to request anyone attend his committee – and for his committee to ask any questions which help them establish the facts.
But in asking whether Mr Rusbridger loves his country, Mr Vaz was crossing a line, questioning the motives of a newspaper and ignoring a basic fact all journalists adhere to: The facts drive the story, not personal beliefs or prejudices.
At the moment, that question is just that – a silly question. But imagine if we had a system in which politicians ultimately had a legal say in how the Press was regulated.
A Royal Charter gives them just that. A two-thirds majority in Parliament is all it takes to pass legislation which changes the Royal Charter. Hacked Off say that would never happen, and that if it did, the Royal Charter would fall apart because the regulator monitored by the scrutiny commission set up by the Charter would simply refuse to adhere to the change in law.
Having seen what we saw today with Mr Vaz, it suddenly feels all too real to me. Imagine if Mr Rusbridger had refused to appear before the committee. The sense of indignation coming from all sides over The Guardian’s decision to question what our intelligence services does could easily lead to calls in the Commons to add a clause in the Charter which obligates editors to appear before Kangeroo Courts set up by MPs to quiz any story they want.
Or how about, in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal, as MPs sought to deflect attention, they’d gone hard on the Telegraph to reveal its sources – and if they’d refused, the MPs had used their ability to change the Charter to insist all newspapers reveal their sources when requested to by a Government committee? Look, they could say, The Telegraph is undermining the authority of MPs and putting the country at risk as a result.
And why not stop there? Given overview and scrutiny committees at local councils are modelled on select committees, is it that big a leap for councils and other local authorities – already busy meddling and trying to control the local media when they can via threats, press offices and subtle hints about advertising – to lobby for the ability to hold the Press to account … all in the public interest of course?
A Royal Charter change which places an expectation – at the very least – that newspapers explain themselves to an overview and scrutiny committee? Doesn’t sound too bad until you suddenly realise it means those the Press seeks to hold to account are suddenly wielding the power.
That may all sound fanciful, but a year ago, the idea of unelected lobbyists with a narrow agenda and a lack of understanding of the wider industry they lobby against (the regional press is a mystery to them, it seems), being in the room when the deal was done by politicians to meddle in the very industry which holds them to account. Yet that’s what happened.
And as we saw today, give politicians an inch over the media, and they’ll quickly take a mile. The Guardian is right to complain about intimidation from Government … with MPs of all sides seemingly preferring to shoot the messenger. Put that intimidation on a legal footing and we’re all worse off.
If Hacked Off can’t see that, then they’re not really fighting for a ‘free and accountable press’ at all.