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The BBC Needs a Free Press
January/February 2014

I'm no threat: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger appears before the Home Affairs Select Committee

I could recite from memory a scene from A Man for All Seasons for years after I saw Robert Bolt's play. An ardent young man called William Roper is telling Thomas More that he must arrest a spy working for his enemies at Henry VIII's court. More refuses, even though he knows Roper is right. He is the Lord Chancellor of England. He has sworn to uphold the law, and the spy has committed no crime. "So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!" cries the exasperated Roper. 

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast-man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it-d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

The idea of freedom of speech is in a dangerously enfeebled condition in Britain. Hardly anyone understands why no editor has agreed to comply with the state's attempt to regulate the press — a measure which takes us back, if not to the court of Henry VIII, then at least to the Stuarts and Presbyterians John Milton fought. "But the BBC is regulated," people lecture me in a voice of irritated incomprehension. "It is not in the government pocket, or a propagandistic state broadcaster. On the contrary, it is impartial and far less propagandistic than half the newspapers and websites you are perversely seeking to defend."

I try to tell them that the BBC keeps its independence because a forest of free institutions surrounds it. Allow the state to fell the trees and a cold wind will blow through the corporation. No one should doubt that the state is now sharpening its axe and running its finger along the blade. The celebrities and media studies academics at Hacked Off have pushed the politicians into illiberalism — not, I should add, that our leaders required much of a shove.

Mark Damazer, the former Controller of Radio 4, gave me a wonderful comparison to explain the extremism of our times. Hacked Off became like the Ulster Unionists, he said. It could not accept that it had won.

Just so. By the end of the Leveson Inquiry, Hacked Off could have had 90 per cent of what it wanted, which in politics or any other form of human endeavour is more than anyone can reasonably expect.

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January 3rd, 2014
5:01 PM
So Rusbridger is a baddie (pushing for Leveson-based change to the law) and a goodie (bravely exposing things the State would rather he didn't and standing up to state censorship). And we need to fear a change to the law which would allow state censorship of the press, yet it doesn't really matter because "there isn't a jury in the land that will convict." Finally, the BBC is a red herring here. Its broadcast output is already highly regulated.

December 26th, 2013
9:12 PM
Good analysis. The BBC rarely, if ever, 'breaks' any news. It is feeble because it fears being accused of partiality if it did break anything controversial. But it can excuse its feebleness by reporting on stories that have been broken by other journalists. So that way at least the news gets out there. Every journalist knows that BBC reporters start every day by looking through the newspapers to see what stories they can 'beat up'. So Nick is right - but what a comment on the weak journalistic values of the BBC. It is a weakness that the BBC seeks to conceal by campaigning slyly against the newspapers. I hope the editors stand firm: no Leveson, no charter, just the right to free speech and the free exchange of ideas.

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