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John Sainsbury

Britain must curb press abuses with care Add to ...

British politicians are a fickle bunch. Not that long ago, they were toadying up to Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen, hiring his editors as spin doctors and schmoozing with them at every social opportunity.

Now politicians of all parties are desperately trying to distance themselves from the toxic wreckage of News International. There seems to be a competition between them as to who can achieve the highest level of moral outrage.

This startling shift brings with it the danger that Britain will go from a situation in which the tabloid press has run riot - acting outside the law and inflicting real damage on the lives of citizens - to one in which the press is unduly constrained, deprived of freedom to play its essential role in civil society.

We need to remind ourselves that democracy and press freedom stand and fall together, that you can't have the former without the latter.

The celebrated radical John Wilkes wrote the following in 1762, at a time when Britain was beginning its slow and tortuous evolution from oligarchy to democracy: "The liberty of the press is the birth-right of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the bulwark of the liberties of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers."

It's worth reflecting on Wilkes's career. The darling of the London mob, he was also a scoundrel, a rake on the make. He turned to the profitable business of muckraking journalism only when he realized his social and political ambitions couldn't be fulfilled by more conventional means. (His diabolical persona was brilliantly captured in William Hogarth's caricature-portrait, which even Wilkes conceded was a good likeness.)

His specialty was exposing the foibles and vices of the ruling aristocracy, combining prurience and faux high-mindedness in the style that the late, unlamented News of the World would try to emulate.

Wilkes claimed that King George III's chief minister, Lord Bute, owed his political influence to the fact that he was having an affair with the king's mother, the Princess Dowager. The charge was absurd and scurrilous, and Wilkes didn't believe it himself. His opponents howled that Wilkes was turning press licence into press licentiousness.

When Wilkes extended his attacks to the king himself, the government made its move. Wilkes was arrested for seditious libel and imprisoned in the Tower of London, until he secured his release on the grounds that his arrest violated his privileges as an MP.

Later, Parliament and the courts declared that the legal instrument known as the general warrant, which secured Wilkes's arrest, was unconstitutional because it indicated only the alleged crime, not the alleged perpetrator. A blunt but effective tool was thus taken out of the hands of government, one it had frequently used to bully printers and publishers.

It was difficult for high-minded Victorians of the next century to accept that a bounder such as Wilkes had advanced press freedom and personal liberties. But the most high-minded Victorian of them all, William Ewart Gladstone, had no such qualms. He understood that bad people sometimes advance good causes. So should we. It's easy enough to applaud the virtuous writers of papers such as The Guardian, but sometimes it's those operating near the outer margins of the law who need public support.

Let's shift the scene to the British Parliament in 1771. Then, as now, the House of Commons was in high moral dudgeon over what it saw as flagrant journalistic abuses. What was vexing MPs then was that some newspapers were having the temerity to publish parliamentary debates. What we now regard as a cornerstone of democratic accountability was seen by the ruling oligarchy as a violation of parliamentary privilege.

John Wilkes masterminded the response. After spending four years in exile and two in the comfort of King's Bench Prison, he was now a respectable and conscientious London magistrate. With his cronies, Alderman Richard Oliver and the Lord Mayor, Brass Crosby, he made sure that the offending printers were given sanctuary from the government's clutches.

Angry MPs summoned Oliver and Crosby to the House before having them thrown into the Tower of London for the duration of the parliamentary session.

So great was the public uproar in support of the "martyred" prisoners that no British government ever again tried to suppress the reporting of parliamentary debates.

We shouldn't expect such drama from the current House of Commons hearings, but, as they proceed, the Brits would be well advised to reflect on the lessons of their history, and to make sure that any attempt to curb press abuses does not lead to the curtailment of press freedoms.

John Sainsbury teaches history at Brock University and is the author of John Wilkes: The Lives of a Libertine .

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