A long way from Zimbabwe; a lot closer to Hacked Off

Strange to see Steve Coogan signed up as a patron of Index on Censorship. The actor has taken a very different line to the organisation on the follow-up to the Leveson report.

Coogan has backed UK press regulation under a Royal Charter, whereas the organisation (up to now) has opposed it on the grounds that it threatens the principle of a free press and sends a poor message to dictatorial states.

“To characterise the argument as one between a free press at one end of the scale and Zimbabwe at the other is simplistic, or irresponsible, or (most often) self-serving,” Hugh Grant, Coogan’s ally on the pro-regulation campaign group Hacked Off told the original Leveson Inquiry.

“There are, of course, many gradations in between those two poles.”

That’s it exactly. Applying the Royal Charter moves the UK a few ‘gradations’ closer to Zimbabwe. It’s still a long, long way away from Harare Practices, but that’s hardly the point.

The point is that we should not be moving that way at all. That’s the principle that Index on Censorship stood by.

Personally I think the Royal Charter juggernaut is unstoppable. The majority of the great and good, and a few of the plain good, have decided that the next time a press baron drowns a kitten and the 2006 Animal Welfare Act just doesn’t deliver enough punishment to satisfy public outrage, there should be some kind of official means available to drown him too.

We’re just an out-voted minority here.

A Royal Charter mandated regulatory system aims to impose accountability on an industry with immense power to do good or ill. That objective in itself is not unreasonable, and may even be beneficial, who knows. But it has nothing to do with freedom of expression.

The dream of a UK first amendment style principle, that government ‘shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’ is just stone dead here and we should get on with our ‘lightly regulated’ lives like good Danish or Finnish journalists.

But allow us to at least mourn what we will lose in the process.

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