The press are in a frightful tizz about their freedoms. They implore the public to come to their aid and save them from the ignominious fate of being tethered by rules and - what are they called? - standards. Yes, that's it: standards.
This is a mistake. Not their first. Their first mistake was to ruin the lives of the benign for personal profit. When they hopped into saunas to report on the doings of people you have never heard of, to increase their circulation and make more money, they may have amused us - we love a bit of light torture, as long as it does not involve ourselves - but they did not inveigle their way into our hearts.
Just because we buy the stuff does not mean that we feel warmly about the people who bring it to us. I'm not sure the press quite get that. They assume that because something sells that the purchasers are positively disposed to the mongers. People may buy pornography, for instance, but they don't want to hang out with the man who sold it to them and wouldn't be overly put out if he was prosecuted when they'd gone.
If you are the school bully, you may be accorded superficial respect, your company may be sought out by those less strong and brutish than you, but do they like you? Not far below the surface, your acolytes probably yearn for your demise. It is a bit rich for some of the most powerful and amoral organisations on earth to go pleading for clemency to a public that has been given a daily diet of evidence that they do not either need nor deserve their support.
The revelations about their behaviour have opened up a virtually bottomless well of indifference to their fate. Try starting a conversation about press freedoms in a pub and see how far you get. After ten seconds of silence the subject will have moved to football, or handbags, or the price of beer. Probably the price of beer. Try starting a conversation about press freedoms on a radio talk show and you will be talking to yourself for an hour. Believe me, I've tried many times and the public do not care.
The evidence that the people are out of love with the press is there in the numbers. The statistics come out every month. For as far as anyone can recall, the readership numbers across all papers does not exactly match the increase in population. The number of people living in Britain is rising quite steeply. Plot it on a graph and it is a steady line from bottom left to top right. Place the line of people who buy newspapers over it and it forms a perfect cross, like a great big "NO". Papers are losing, on average, about ten percent of their readers every year. Some fare much worse. The industry carries on as though that is not happening, as though they are still as dominant and authoritarian a part of our lives as they were in the seventies, when they would ruin any life they chose just for amusement.
However, none of that is the really bizarre aspect of this plea for clemency, this furious chaffing at any kind of rule of behaviour. The very odd part of this whole issue is that the press are not interested in freedom of speech at all. They have actively campaigned against it at every turn.
Barely a week goes by when someone says something they don't like and they want that person silenced. When a preacher delivers a lecture they disapprove of, they call for him to be deported. When a comedian jokes about a subject they feign to find unacceptable, they want him banned. When a television or radio presenter is chastised for transgressing rules to which the papers are not and never will be subject, do they rush to his defence, do they call for freedom of speech? They do not. They revel in his misfortune, they report on how disgusting an individual this is and they want him fined and they want the station taken off the air. When Channel Four does...anything, they call for the revocation of its licence and the sacking of its bosses. Remove this filth from our living rooms, they say. Ban it, they say. I have looked it up and that does not really match the dictionary definition of "free speech".
The truth is that the press are only interested in a very restricted type of free speech, which is for them to have the right to say and do what they want without consequence. They appear to be so wrapped up in the notion that they are doing good to have completely missed the fact that, much of the time, they are doing just the opposite. They may not have noticed, but we have.
We have noticed that when it comes to free speech, what they are really demanding is freedom of speech for themselves and people who think just like them, and the restriction, or proscription of anyone who does not. If that is the freedom of speech they are after, I am not sure it is worth fighting for.