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The Commentary

Self-regulation

When you bring up a child, what you are aiming at is self-regulation.

The parents want to bring good moral principles in a firm, reasonable and loving way such that the youngster eventually sees the basic sense of them, imbibes them for himself / herself and so begins to moderate / manage his / her own behaviour accordingly.

Self-regulation is also obviously the only way to maintain a free press in a civilised, democratic society. But it has all gone awry in Britain, as we have lost our moral moorings as a nation. The phone hacking scandal, in which some journalists and editors have behaved disgracefully and brought great hurt on a number of vulnerable people, has blown it. Lord Justice Leveson’s enquiry is recommending some kind of statutory regulation of the press.

A free press is meant to hold democratic governments to account, as indeed the newspapers have done over recent years with the exposure of such things as the MPs’ expenses scandal. Everyone is rightly very sensitive about the possibility of government regulated media. It smacks of the emergence of an Orwellian state. Some friends from China were telling me recently that the news there always follows the same pattern. The first item is about how busy their political leaders are. The second is some story of trouble or tragedy from overseas, implicitly indicating that the rest of the world is a mess. And the third gives news of something in China which is going well, invariably illustrated by a group of happy, smiling Chinese faces. We don’t want to go down that road. We want to be told the truth. That is why, though Lord Leveson is recommending a form of statutory regulation of the press, he keeps insisting that actually he is not.

Up until 1694, no publication was allowed in our country without a government-granted license. It was 50 years earlier that the writer of Paradise Lost, John Milton, in his Areopagita argued forcefully against government censorship. Milton’s central thesis was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. Thus developed the concept of the ‘marketplace of ideas’, the notion that, when people put different points of view, the best arguments will prevail.

J.S. Mill and the Australians

But here is where we have run into trouble. What is ‘best’? What does individual discernment mean in a postmodern world where we are told there are no such things as universal truth or absolute standards of right or wrong? How is a journalist or editor meant to self-regulate when he or she is given no moral compass by society? John Stuart Mill’s principle that all is allowed, so long as we do not do harm to others, evidently counted for nothing with the phone hackers driven by society’s actual ethic of making a fast buck however you can if you can get away with it. And Milton’s belief that the best arguments will prevail assumes a morally educated audience. But many in the audience these days have only been educated in the morals of pleasure and materialism (if it feels good, just do it) and have little idea of how to distinguish right from wrong.

Secular ‘freedom’, as Francis Schaeffer predicted years ago, is sending us towards totalitarianism. The Australian radio station behind the hoax which led to the shocking death of the nurse Jacintha Saldhana, following the Duchess of Cambridge’s stay in hospital in December, insisted it had not broken any laws. Facing such an attitude, understandably many people will think: ‘Well, we had better put some laws in place then’.

John Benton