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LORD COPPER: Muzzle the press and you lose democracy's watchdog

November 28, 2012 - 10:52 GMT Location: London

The proposal before the UK parliament urging the creation of a statutory body to control the country's press should be utterly opposed.

"Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all."
Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Winston Churchill, Houses of Parliament, November 1947

"I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."
Voltaire, letter to Abbe le Roche, 1770

Nobody wants to have their mobile phone voicemail hacked and listened to by a journalist, nor to have intrusive photographs taken of themselves on holiday or to have details of their messy divorce splashed all over the front pages.

So, doesn’t it make perfect sense to do what a group of members of parliament have done and sign a proposal urging the creation of a statutory body to control the press in this country?

It seems an attractive prospect on the surface, muzzling the rottweilers of Fleet Street and protecting the privacy of the individual.

Delve a bit deeper, though, and it’s all rather murky.

Sure, the phone hacking was abhorrent and the perpetrators needed to be dealt with. But that’s rather the point. We have a legal system that can deal with them, and they are beginning to feel the force of that.

We also have the public’s reaction, which ultimately caused the closure of the – allegedly – most guilty newspaper. (Although, incidentally, the most unsavoury accusation concerning a murder victim would appear to have been false.) A combination of legal action and public reaction brought an end to that sorry saga.

But what about the other side, the things that we do want to have exposed?

The need for a free press
Without a free press, the likelihood of the taxpayers and electors of this country learning about the misuse of their funds by some MPs would have been very slim.

Would we have understood the extent of the deception about Iraqi weapons in the run-up to the second Gulf war, or, in another age and on another continent, would the citizens of the USA have seen the corruption of the Nixon White House?

You see, that’s the problem.

We don’t like some of the things the press does, but we need some of the others to keep our politicians honest (if, of course, that’s possible).

In democratic societies, the elected representatives are not rulers. They are the trustees of the public will, and as such have to be fully accountable. If we allow them to shackle the open discussion of their actions, then, sadly, we will lose the ability to control their excesses.

I realise that this piece doesn’t say a lot about metals, but nevertheless it’s important; I would urge you all to oppose as strongly as you can attempts made by politicians and their celebrity friends to muzzle the free press in this country.

After all, would you rather line up alongside Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill and Voltaire, or Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and their cronies in the self-serving Hacked Off campaign?

Lord Copper

All material subject to strictly enforced copyright laws. © Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC.

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