You can always tell that journalists are getting worried about regulation when they start dredging up stirring quotations about the ‘freedom of the press’. There are plenty of famous historical figures to cite – John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville and many more – to add weight to any argument about protecting newspapers from the claws of the state. The Sun’s front page today 1 provides one of the best examples yet of this tendency. Under the dramatic headline ‘D-Day’, a grave-looking Winston Churchill is displayed alongside lines he penned in 1949:
‘A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny. Where men have the habit of liberty, the Press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.’
To reinforce the point, the Sun gives MPs voting on a ‘press law’ a stark warning: ‘Don’t throw away our history’.
Rousing words indeed – even if they are slightly undercut by the smaller photograph at the top of the same page showing the Duchess of Cambridge catching her shoe in a grate, inadvertently suggesting that the press is more likely to be vigilant in watching celebrities then in guarding the ‘rights of the ordinary citizen’. The D-Day rhetoric also fell rather flat as soon as it was announced that the main political parties had reached agreement on a compromise system of regulation, forestalling the need for a grand parliamentary battle. Deploying Churchill in this way, though, is a tendentious use of history. The former Prime Minister was by no means an unfailing supporter of the ‘freedom of the press’. During the Second World War, Churchill threatened the Daily Mirror with suppression when it printed what he regarded as critical comments about the war effort. When he suffered a stroke in June 1953, while serving as Prime Minister for the second time, he conspired with sympathetic newspaper proprietors to hide the seriousness of his illness from the press. And when, the following year, cabinet discussed the spate of press reporting of ‘homosexual offences’, Churchill suggested that an amenable backbencher be encouraged to introduce into the House of Commons a bill preventing the publication of details from prosecutions of this kind. He was eventually dissuaded by a memorandum pointing out that this was a serious encroachment on the principles of open justice and press freedom.
More importantly, perhaps, the Sun’s suggestion that ‘press laws’ and ‘statutory regulation’ are the main threats to the vibrancy of British journalism is to misread the evidence from recent decades. Since the Second World War, politicians have been falling over themselves not to set up a system of statutory regulation, and direct parliamentary intervention is certainly not what Leveson or his supporters are demanding. The main threats to press freedom and transparency in public life come from elsewhere. It is here, indeed, that the example of Churchill is instructive. Churchill’s warnings to the Mirror were part of a long and continuing tradition of state attempts to use the Official Secrets Act and ‘Defence Notices’ (now known as ‘Defence-Advisory Notices’) to limit discussion of matters impinging on ‘national security’. The hushing-up of Churchill’s stroke was typical of ways in which information can be manipulated, distorted, leaked or restricted in the course of informal contacts and briefings between ministers, proprietors and journalists. And if the publicity given to ‘homosexual offences’ is no longer an issue, current proposals for secret or closed courts pose a challenge to the principle of ‘open justice’. The intense focus on the ‘statutory underpinning’ of the proposed new regulatory body is serving to distract attention from a range of vital issues relating to the relationships between the press, politicians and the public.
When in doubt, the tabloid press routinely reaches for wartime analogies and the big book of Churchill quotations. More often than not, these comparisons do more to obscure than illuminate the real issues. In this case, Churchill’s actions, rather than his words, can help us see where the true dangers lie.
Adrian Bingham is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson Report and he is the author of Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (Oxford, 2009).
You can see Adrian’s blog on the original Leveson Report here: http://www.historymatters.group.shef.ac.uk/reports-please-lord-leveson-history/
You can find other History Matters blogs on public history here.