You cannot hope to win a contract in London by sending some public official a Rolex or a midnight poule de luxe; and that is because that official would be too amazed to accept, too honourable to accept, and above all too terrified to accept. British business, and British politics – and the nexus between business and politics – have been kept cleaner than in virtually all other countries because for centuries we have had a free press.
It was in the late 18th century that the libertine MP and Mayor of London John Wilkes had his epic battles with the governments of George III, and vindicated his right to publish his scabrous views of that government, as well as an idiotic and pornographic poem. It was in the following decades that London grew into the richest and most powerful city on earth – the first since imperial Rome to be home to a million souls.
There can be absolutely no doubt that this rise to commercial greatness was partly made possible by those freedoms won in the 18th century – an independent judiciary; habeas corpus; freedom of assembly; the right of voters to choose their representatives; and above all the freedom of the press to speak truth to power: to ridicule, to satirise – even to vilify – and to expose wrongdoing.
Of course, not every businessperson or investor may personally relish the exuberance and ferocity of the British media. They may not enjoy reading about their salaries, yachts and subterranean swimming pools. But they also know – or should rationally accept – that it is the very boldness of the British press, and its refusal to be bullied or cowed, that makes those deals risk-free and helps them create the wealth they enjoy. Like any strong detergent, the work of the British media may cause a certain smarting of the eyes. But if you want to keep clean the gutters of public life, you need a gutter press.
Since the days of Wilkes, the media have been lifting up the big, flat rocks to let the daylight in on the creepy-crawlies; and in all that time we have never come close to the state licensing of newspapers. Not, that is, until today, when MPs must vote on the potentially calamitous proposals put forward by Labour and the Lib Dems.
Everyone accepts that the papers have behaved with vileness and stupidity towards the McCann family, and the bereaved relatives of Milly Dowler. Everyone wants to protect innocent members of the public from such bullying and abuse, and all would now accept that the old Press Complaints Commission was about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
Yes, as some of us have been saying since long before Leveson was even a twinkle in the PM’s eye, it would be a good thing if there was a beefed-up regulatory body that had the power to impose rapid and draconian fines and to demand apologies for the falsehoods and intrusions perpetrated by all contracting papers.
But if Parliament agrees to anything remotely approaching legislation, it will be handing politicians the tools they need to begin the job of cowing and even silencing the press; and what began by seeming in the public interest will end up eroding the freedoms of everyone in this country. It is a completely retrograde step, and will be viewed with bemusement by human rights organisations around the world.
All my life I have thought of Britain as a free country, a place that can look around the world with a certain moral self-confidence. How can we wag our fingers at Putin’s Russia, when we are about to propose exemplary and crippling fines on publications that do not sign up to the regulatory body? How could we have criticised the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez?
I wholly approve of the stance taken by my fellow Daily Telegraph columnist Fraser Nelson in refusing to sign up to any of it, and if I were editing The Spectator today, I hope I would do the same. It is time for Parliament to remember the commercial and political freedoms that made this country great. Think of Wilkes, and Liberty, and vote this nonsense down.