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Trust me, I’m a politician

The Leveson enquiry into press behaviour makes many useful points and suggestions.  Clearly the present system has not worked properly, in that outrageous and unacceptable behaviour has happened despite it.  There is a strong case for a new and tougher regulatory mechanism that stands arm’s length from newspapers and has some real teeth to enforce its recommendations.

The real dispute comes with the Leveson proposal that there should be legislative oversight of this body.  It would be the first time since the 17th Century that the press had to seek government licence to operate.  Those who believe press freedom is an essential prop of a healthy democracy fear that such a body would gradually assert its will.  Editors would find themselves self-censoring articles and attitudes they feared might upset it, and a culture of conformity might gradually asset itself.  A legitimate fear is that such a legally-empowered body would find new tasks for itself, increasing its size and importance.  It might well respond to each controversy that arose by extending its reach and making pronouncements to cover the new circumstances.  Step by step the press might lose the freedom and independence that enable it to expose wrong-doing and to call politicians to account.

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