Tuesday, 24 May 2011

For students of history everywhere

I thought this might be a good moment to think a bit about some of the important landmarks in press freedom here in the UK … or, more accurately, England.
1641: The abolition of the Star Chamber
This had been the monarchy’s most potent tool of repression for centuries. A court that held secret sessions, without juries and produced arbitrary judgments … all to please the King.
The abolition marked the end of the blanket censorship in England.
1694: The lapse of the 1643 Licensing Order
This was the fifty year old order that required pamphlets and proto-newspapers to be licensed before they could be published. John Milton’s tract Areopagitica was a blast against this order.
The lapse was the consequence of legislation following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which among other things, established the sovereignty of parliament.
1727: Edmund Curll convicted for obscenity
Curll’s knee-trembler Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock was the first book to be banned for its sexually explicit content. He was charged with disturbing the King's peace – though since George I’s grasp of English was less than perfect it’s unlikely his peace was too disturbed by the book’s rampant prose.
Obscenity laws became a permanent fixture until 1960 when the Lady Chatterley trail began to chip them away.
1738: Parliament bans reports of its proceedings
Unseccessfully, it turned out. And the number of reporters recording speeches and debates grew steadily until …
1771: Parliament lifts ban on reporting
Several reporters, publishers and printers were arrested for breaching the reporting ban – but it proved no deterrent. The radical MP and journalist John Wilkes mounted a legal challenge to the ban, which MPs then lifted.
1803: Reporters allocated seats in the House of Commons
Two hundred years ago, newspapers vied with each other over the quality and accuracy of their parliamentary reporting and the gallery was one of the most important assignments a reporter could land.
1811: Hansard begins publication
The record of parliamentary proceedings wasn’t called Hansard until the end of the century, but it was in 1811 that Thomas Curson Hansard, the printer to the House of Commons, took over its production.
1840: Parliamentary Papers Act
This was the act that established qualified privilege for the reporting and publication of parliamentary proceedings. It followed proceedings for defamation against Hansard.
During those proceedings, it became apparent that while MPs were protected by privilege, reporting them was not.
1926: The BBC and the General Strike
During the strike, the BBC’s first DG Sir John Reith instructed news bulletins to report all sides in the dispute and to do so without comment.
This brought him into conflict with Labour leaders and with the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Reith feared that by deviating from his strict ‘no comment’ policy he would give the government the opportunity it sought to take over the national broadcaster, turning it into the state broadcaster ending its independence for good.
1977: The Gay News Trial
The success of Mary Whitehouse’s private prosecution for blasphemous libel over the poem The love that dare not speak its name resulted in the Gay News publisher Denis Lemon being sentenced to nine months in prison – a sentence quashed on appeal.
1988: Spycatcher cleared for publication in England
Peter Wright’s account of life in MI5 – a life that included bugging prime minister Harold Wilson’s phone – was written in 1985 and banned in England. But it was published – and imported from – almost everywhere else, including Scotland.
2000: Human Rights Act comes into force
The act, passed in 1998, established some sixteen human rights – including the rights to free expression and to the respect for private and family life.
Oh dear.
2006: Wall Street Journal v Jameel
The House of Lords judgment that consolidated the defence of ‘responsible journalism’.
2008: Offence of Blasphemy abolished
Though it seemed to many that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 had simply reinvented it by other means.
2009: Trafigura gag revealed
The Labour MP Paul Farrelly asked a parliamentary question revealing an injunction obtained by Trafigura to prevent the publication of a report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in west Africa.
The terms of this ‘super injunction’ meant that the existence of the injunction, let alone its content, could not be reported.
2011: Ryan Giggs named in parliament
All press freedom’s roads lead to this moment. 


The historic conflicts – from the abolition of the Star Chamber, the arrest of political reporters, the struggle to resist government interference and the power of big business.
And in a world where over a hundred journalists and bloggers are in prison in places like Iran and Syria and China and Burma.
Or risking their lives to confront authority in places like Ukraine and Kyrgystan.
Is it anything short of a freedom’s magnificent miracle that here, now, in England we have, apparently for all time, established the unqualified right to know which premiership footballer has slept with which Big Brother contestant?

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