Says Raphael Behr
The argument, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that a genre of wild irreverence is indigenous to British newspapers and therein lies their unique genius. If it weren’t for their capacity to offend and behave appallingly, they couldn’t reasonably be expected to hold the powerful to account. The grubby hacks who sometimes cross the threshold of decency and propriety are precious gadflies that prick the vanity of the establishment. Take away their licence to be bad and they cannot properly do good. It is a neat syllogism: a free press does wicked things; a press that is not free cannot perform its democratic functions properly, therefore, in order to perform its functions properly, the press must be partly wicked.
Indeed: the logic here is that since the pediatrician cures the child he has the right to whip his cock out in front of the mother. But the phrase about democratic functions ignores the fact that, taken as a whole, the British press is a major driver of authoritarianism. It’s career death for an aspiring politician to be written off as ‘soft on’ something; and announcing a crackdown is a cheap way to get yourself some approving headlines, except of course if its thought that you’re not cracking down enough. And no-one ever kept the press ‘onside’ by saying that addicts might commit less crime if they could legally get hold of drugs. If you want the freedom the press are howling about to be spread more widely through policy and legislation – if you want more open borders, an approach to terrorism that doesn’t seek to be a terrorist force multiplier, answers to crime other than more prison a rational approach to drug policy and all the rest of it, then, for the most part, the press is your enemy. The fact that politicians are prepared to stand up to it even to the extent of serving up a Leveson themed dog's breakfast arguably raises the chance that, someday, the politicians might not be afraid to legislate for greater freedom. If the politics and media gangs get into a protracted war of attrition, all the better.
Still, that’s obviously wildly optimistic in a political framework which tends to select for success partly through authoritarianism, which again raises the question of how this selection process became ingrained, and who put the incentives in place. I don’t believe any of the hype coming from the punditocracy about how the new Royal Charter With A Bit of Law In It threatens the very essence of our democracy, ie their license to do as they please. But it’s a nice inversion of an old cliché: the children are eating the counter-revolution.