Selling the pass on press freedom in the United Kingdom, not in Israel

In a well argued article about press freedom which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of the 24th October 2012, Tim Luckhurst, currently Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent, not only pointed out the dangers of any legislation which would make it obligatory for any news organisation or any individual or individuals operating an organ of the press to belong to a press regulatory body with statutory underpinning, but also gave a plausible prediction of the long term effects of such direct or indirect party political control.  He also detailed the many laws which are more than adequate to punish the excesses which served as a pretext for the creation of the Leveson inquiry (e.g. Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Data Protection Act, Computer Misuse Act, Official Secrets Act, the developing law of confidence, various statutes punishing corruption in public office, etc. – see <A HREF=””>).  A number of other articles which appeared on this subject at that time followed his general approach.

Not the least of the merits of Geoffrey Robertson’s article for Standpoint (still to be found online) is the way in which he reminds readers that journalists are not exercising a fundamental freedom exclusive to them: “… journalism is not a profession. It is the exercise by occupation of the right of free speech to which all are entitled”.  Depending upon the media organisations for which they work, or to which they contribute articles, they have more or less opportunities to see accepted what they want reported, or to have their opinions given wider circulation.  If many free liberal democracies recognise the serious harm which can be caused by the wider circulation given in the printed or online media to certain forms of free speech – like, for example, defamation or incitement – and provide civil and/or criminal law remedies for this, they do not penalise all forms of free speech deemed immoral or objectionable, especially when the proposed criteria for such sanctions are too vague or open to widely divergent subjective interpretations.  Offensiveness, for example – or even gross offensiveness – cannot be adopted as a basis for legislation without dangerously restricting press freedom.


In a free society, moreover, journalists and organs of the press must be able to decide not to join a “voluntary”, “self-regulatory” body – and a refusal to join can be motivated by a principled disagreement with one or more of the guidelines of such an organisation.  Geoffrey Robertson’s article not only puts forward excellent arguments, but is very informative about the historical context for several attempts at press regulation (Read it all, <A HREF=””>. See also <A HREF=””>.)


Unfortunately an increasing number not only of party politicians, but also of journalists who should know better – not only many contributors to the pseudo-liberal Guardian/Observer and a number of broadcast journalists – joined the camp of those who advocate the establishment of a directly or indirectly state controlled regulatory body.   This body would combine quasi-legislative and quasi-judicial functions by both deciding upon mandatory guidelines governing the press and imposing punishments for violations of these.


By contrast, it is very rare to see expressed in the British mainstream media support for the kind of protection for freedom of the press and other fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the amendments to the Constitution of the United States.


Among the individuals who support such a regulatory organisation are those concerned about the systematic demonization of the state of Israel, with whom one can sympathise while disagreeing.  They should be aware that there is no guarantee that such an official body will uphold truth in the face of damaging falsehoods – one example being the failure of the complaint about the misuse of the term “apartheid” made to South Africa’s equivalent of the Advertising Authority (see <A HREF=””>.)  (For a working definition see, for example, Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, according to which the “crime of apartheid” means “inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”)


Indeed it happens increasingly frequently that falsehoods in the media originate not from lazy or dishonest journalists, but from government representatives, diplomats and NGOs which enjoy a partially or wholly undeserved reputation – the so-called “halo effect” to which NGO-Monitor has referred in numerous studies and analyses.  Not to mention full-time international lawyers, especially those who work with UN bodies like the Dictators’ Rights Council (sorry- Human Rights Council) – among whom the proportion of liars and distorters is as significant as among certain categories of journalists.  I here expressly exclude Geoffrey Robertson, whose involvement with matters of what is called international humanitarian law is only a part of his legal activities.  He was however wrong when he claimed in a New Statesman article that Article 51 of the UN Charter only applies to state actors (see <A HREF=””>).

The provision for self-defence is not qualified and, even if it is argued that the UN, in its “peace-keeping” activities, mainly intervenes in inter-state conflicts, there are several examples of UN interventions in other kinds of conflict.  For the record, Article 51 says the following:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.  Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.   (See also <A HREF=”″>.)


There have during the past decades been constant warnings about the threat to fundamental freedoms supposedly represented by measures promoted by Israel’s “right-wing” parties.  The arguments used in this connection have often been formulated in  exaggerated terms and have in many cases been downright dishonest – for example regarding the anti-boycott law (less severe than the French equivalent) and the law providing for the reduction or removal of public funding paid to organisations or associations promoting “Nakba” related falsifications of history.


Genuine human rights activists in Israel should keep a sense of proportion and be aware of the infringements upon fundamental freedoms which occur from time to time in other western democracies.  It must be noted that, even in peacetime, many democracies which do not have the constitutional protections for fundamental freedoms long enjoyed in the United States can sometime see legislation passed which is illiberal or even dangerously authoritarian in nature.




About the Author
Paul Leslie is an occasional independent journalist and researcher, living in London. He has degrees from Exeter College, Oxford University and the Sorbonne (history of the Jews of Algeria and Tunisia, in two different colonial systems). Paul Leslie is am a fan of cinema – all genres – and is passionately interested in modern history.