08/11/2012 09:09 GMT | Updated 08/01/2013 05:12 GMT

In Defence of Self-Regulation

Britain has enjoyed Press Freedom for 317 years. It was finally wrestled from the grasp of the State, after centuries of campaigning, in 1695. Many have - literally - died to protect it ever since.

So why do so many people want to give it away now?

First, what is press freedom?

Well, it ISN'T the right to hack phones, to blag medical records, to wrongly wreck good peoples' reputations, to trample all over the privacy of the innocent.

The UK already has laws against that - libel laws, privacy laws, criminal laws (over 30 journalists, me included, have been arrested in the last 18 months).

Press freedom is, though, the right - nay, the duty - to publicly demand answers to rude, awkward, demanding, inconvenient questions that those in power really don't want aired. That's why an unsavoury alliance of celebrities, politicians and lawyers are desperately trying to con you into giving it up.

They call for legally-controlled 'statutory regulation' of the media, while claiming that somehow the press can still remain 'independent'.

It is, simply, a lie. The words 'state-control' and 'free press' simply can't live in same sentence.

And make no mistake, 'statutory regulation' means STATE regulation.

If it happens, politicians will get the press they want, rather than the press they deserve. One which, aided by greedy "ambulance-chasing" lawyers, they can control.

In Greece police acting under state regulation arrested a journalist for publishing a list of tax avoiders that inconveniently include the names of several government ministers. In France, successive presidents have used state regulation to cow the press into not reporting the fact that they were able to corruptly use taxpayers money to pay for mistresses and secret children. Here we had the MPs expenses scandal - and currently the speaker of the House of Commons is desperately trying to prevent newspapers exposing even MORE greedy MPs (including one campaigning to gag our newspapers!) who are allegedly running a rent scam potentially netting them thousands.

Yet these are the people who should be given the legal levers of control over a free press?! People like, say, love-cheat John Prescott? Plebgate's Andrew Mitchell? How about telephone-throwing Gordon Brown?!

It's not just a matter of of concern for us here in the UK either. Recently Prof Tim Luckhurst of Kent University - a former BBC foreign affairs producer and journalist for the Guardian and Independent newspapers - launched an impressive pamphlet in defence of press freedom by recounting a conversation the other week with an editor from Zimbabwe.

That brave journalist told him how dictators throughout Africa and worldwide would love to use the example of the 'mother of parliaments' bringing in state regulation to justify their own gagging of the media.

Prof Luckhurst quotes Sir Winston Churchill at the start of his pamphlet thus: "A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny..."

Because make no mistake, statutory regulation means state regulation and is the thin end of the wedge. Ignore the apologists who protest the changes they seek are inconsequential. Who brings in, draws up, and enacts the statutes they seek? Politicians, of course.

And once in place, those self-same politicians will be free in years to come to amend, adjust, tweak, ratify, clarify, fix, CENSOR those press laws to silence all those questions and inquiries they don't want to answer.

A free press does make mistakes, gets things - including its behaviour - wrong. That can hurt - but the alternative is worse. To paraphrase, democracy is the worst kind of government... until you consider all the others. It is the same with a free press and self-regulation.

Let them steal it at your peril.

The above is a longer version of an authored TV film by Neil Wallis broadcast on the Daily Politics programme on BBC2 on Thursday 8 November 2012.