‘Freedom’ has featured strongly in responses to the Leveson Report. A swathe of the liberal-right, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have claimed that any state regulation of the press – even Leveson’s minimalist solution of setting the principles of an independent regulator through the law – would amount to ‘crossing the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land‘, with the ‘potential to infringe free speech and the free press.’ The right-leaning weekly newspaper the The Spectator, claiming a long, principled history of libertarianism in standing up for a free press, announced that it ‘would not sign up to anything enforced by government‘. The principle here is that freedom must be absolute, and fiercely protected from compromise. But it is not so much these individual examples that are striking, rather the sheer amount of liberal-right argument mobilized against press regulation, uniting most of the press and Tory party.
The press freedom debate is remarkable if we compare it to the liberty/security debate. There was no clamour from the right for the defense of freedom (with the notable exception of David Davis MP) when suspected terrorists where being locked up without trial or placed under novel forms of house arrest, even though habeas corpus has been as important to liberal democracy as press freedom.
It is all the more remarkable when arguments from the right against statutory press regulation are identical to arguments from the left against counterterrorism powers. For example, on Newsnight Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the rightwing tabloid The Sun, said,
‘If we go down the route of legislation in any way shape or form it’s irrevocable, it’s a step you cannot reverse. Once it’s in place there is the possibility of it being incrementally amended upwards. The ratchet will be one way.’
Kavanagh describes what I have called normalization, a process very much at work in counterterrorism and security politics. Once a new government power is enshrined in law it is very difficult to take back. Over time it becomes a baseline for further powers. I do not recall The Sun having much concern about it before.
I would not call this hypocrisy as such. It is a demonstration of the different values at work in different areas of politics. Security is treated as a special case – an exception – in which freedom can and should be compromised. The freedoms compromised are not normally those of middle class commentators, but migrants, suspect communities, radicals of all colours, and other folk devils.