It is just as the advocates of press freedom feared: politicians cannot stop themselves. Give them control over print and they’ll come back for digital. Next they will want to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journalists, to reward their friends and punish their enemies. Just a whiff of this sort of power has intoxicated Alex Salmond, who commissioned a review which recommended that Scotland make licensing of the press compulsory. His devolved government would license bloggers, a handy tool in the run-up to the 2014 referendum. He was forced to drop the plans after they caused an uproar, but his intention was clear.
Perhaps the general public think state regulation is a good thing; that hacks should be restrained by people who aren’t themselves in the media. But what may not be appreciated is the insidious influence politicians already try to exert over the press: the quiet words over dinner, the phone calls made to editors, myself included. I have been asked to chastise ‘irresponsible’ reporters and remove articles that politicians find insulting from the website. On minister called to ask if I was aware that a Spectator journalist had been rude about him without first seeking the advice of his spin doctor. It’s as if MPs have lost sight of what a free press is for.
When the public think of a ‘bad journalist’, they imagine a hack who plagiarises, lies, or in some other way breaks the law. When a politician thinks of a bad journalist, more often than not he imagines someone who has criticised him, unfairly in his opinion. So of course there’s political lip-smacking about an era in which politicians have the power to define what is acceptable journalism. Or, as Labour’s Jim Sheridan put it on Tuesday, expel the ‘parasitical elements’ within the press. But this is an attack on freedom.