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How a By-Election Proves State Regulation of the Press is WRONG

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The irony is almost too rich to bear. On Thursday, the same day that Lord Justice Leveson delivers his long-awaited report into regulation of the British press, there is a parliamentary by-election in Rotherham.

It has been caused by the forced resignation of Labour MP Denis McShane (a fervent press regulator, incidentally) after he was exposed by national newspapers for stealing many thousands of pounds from the taxpayer...

Consider these names too: Stephen Dorrell, Eric Ilsley, John Prescott, Eric Joyce, David Chaytor, Margaret Moran, Jeffrey Archer, Lord Hanningfield, Elliot Morley, Jim Devine, Baroness Udin, Lord Taylor, Mark Oaten, Lord Paul, David Laws - trust me, I could go on and on and on.
They are all MPs or politicians who - if it wasn't for exposure by a free press - would have had the right to vote on whether or not to take away 317 years of press freedom and impose State Regulation of the press.

I say "would have", because most of them are now disgraced - in prison for stealing taxpayers money, caught up in sexual scandal, or simply caught out misusing the system immorally to line their own pockets.

Remember the MPs Expenses scandal, the claims for the duck ponds and the luxury kitchens and second homes miles from their own constituencies?

It still goes on and on. Recently the Daily Telegraph ran an expose detailing how some MPs have bought flats, then rented them out to tenants, pocketed the income, then rented ANOTHER flat for themselves and claimed back the rent from the taxpayer! Nice little earner...They even rent to fellow MPs who ALSO claim the cash from the taxpayer!

The Telegraph is trying to dig deeper on this story - but the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow doesn't like all this prying into MPs expenses (well, they elected him to office!) and is fighting a clever rearguard action using parliamentary privilege to frustrate the investigative journalists.

Why do I raise this? Because these are the kind of people who are asking you to "trust them" to do the right thing about regulating the freedom of press.

IF they succeed MPs will get the press they want - supine, acquiescent, unquestioning and dull like in state regulated France - rather than the impertinent, rude, awkward, partisan, iconoclastic press they absolutely deserve.

Let us be clear, the British press has and does get things badly wrong. Hacking into Milly Dowler's phone was utterly wrong. Hacking into the phones of the families of the victims of Soham, of 7/7, of Madeleine McCann, was similarly unconscionable. The pillorying of innocent murder suspect Christopher Jeffries was wrong.

But as Prof Tim Luckhurst said last week "Free speech is for everyone, not just for some of the
victims of bad journalism."

Of the 10,000 or so journalists in the UK, the 1,200 newspapers and magazines, who write or publish many millions of stories every year, only a tiny few were involved in the criminal activity that is alleged.

Never forget that laws designed to neuter national tabloids also hit national broadsheets, local newspapers, the magazine industry and their 1,600 associated websites.

The Regulation lobby claim "statutory underpinning" of the press will have no impact other than as a reminder to the press to behave itself. Seductive.

Beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences - it is just the thin edge of the wedge. The Terrorism Act (2000) was brought in to tackle terrorism. That's good, isn't it? Politicians inserted into it Sect 44 to make it easier to intercept potential terrorists. Except the police promptly used to apprehend anyone they damn well fancied. Over 253,000 in one year alone, including a schoolboy in uniform on a geography project, an MP checking out a local bridlepath, and a man taking a photograph of a sunset. Not a single prosecution ever resulted.

I was arrested in a 6am raid on my West London crime-den under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. RIPA was designed by MPs to target terrorism communications.
It states it can investigate "any aspect of a person's private or personal relationships".

Politicians have since allowed it to be used to electronically tag your dustbins, monitor dog poo, to spy on families seeking school places, fishing bailiffs, Trading Standards on prostitution adverts, a joke shop, smoking bans etc.

Give most politicians an inch, and they'll take five miles. Too many WILL destroy a free press given the chance.

And what about the web? It is surely Don Quixote-level madness to try to gag print when you can publish anything whatsoever, true or not, private or not, on the internet? Lord McAlpine anyone? One example proves the case unquestioningly - No British newspaper published the topless Princess Kate photos. Yet SEVEN MILLION Brits looked at them on the Web!

I haven't even gone into the celebrities and lawyers who are driving the pro-regulation campaign for their own ill-gotten gains. I speak as someone who spent years fending off celebrities who will crawl over broken glass to get into the papers on their rise to fame or to sell their latest film or record, happily putting their entire private life into the public domain when it suited them but screaming privacy when it didn't.

Lawyers? I absolutely believe in them doing the very best for their clients. But they do it for MONEY and have made fortunes. Pretending it's some moral crusade is laughable. One made a film for the BBC promoting state regulation - and name-checked their law firm in the middle of it. Another made £300,000 alone from a single phone-hacking client. But it is politicians that matter - they're the ones that can legislate to shackle the press in YOUR name.

HL Mencken said: "The relationship between the press and the powerful is the same as that between a dog and a lamp-post"

Or as a man who knows, London Mayor Boris Johnson, put it more prosaically "If you want to keep the gutters of life, the gutters of politics, clean, then you need a gutter press".

I don't know about that, but you DO need a free press unshackled by state regulation. Don't let politicians steal it from you.

(This is an abridged version of a speech on Press Freedom given to University College, London, Students Union Debating Society on 26th November, 2012)