Leveson Report: how might Christians respond?
It has generated acres of newsprint in its own right, and caused political controversy cutting to the heart of the coalition, but what might Christians make of the Leveson Report into the British press?
Are its recommendations essential in order to contain the power of newspapers? Or do its proposals go too far – "crossing a Rubicon," as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, by "writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land"?
There are two main reasons why Lord Leveson's report can be welcomed. Firstly, it is consistent with a Christian view of government. From a Christian perspective there is nothing wrong in the state seeking to restrain and rein in the behavioural excesses of the media.
These words of the apostle Paul in Romans were originally addressed to individual Christians, of course, but they have a wider application, and seem particularly relevant when read in the light of newspapers' behaviour in recent years: "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad," he wrote. "Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!"
The point here is that the press has treated a whole range of people so appallingly that newspapers have rightly forfeited the approval of successive governments, and so in general terms, biblically speaking, it is quite appropriate for law-makers to step in.
The second reason we can welcome Lord Leveson's report positively is that it is consistent with a Christian view of freedom. We no doubt remember the famous Scriptural words that "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free", as Paul puts it in Galatians. But we also know from the rest of the New Testament that the Christian freedom of which he was speaking easily degenerates into either licentiousness (the problem at Corinth) or legalism (the problem at Galatia). This is true not only of specifically Christian freedom, but of liberty more generally as well – which is why, in very simplistic terms, societies without a strong Christian framework tend to err towards either moral laxity (parts of the west) or authoritarianism (parts of the east).
In post-Christian British society, press freedom has indeed decayed into a form of licentiousness, free from any moral compass. And it would be easy to swing to the other extreme through a heavy-handed response which is itself an over-reaction into legalism. But what Lord Leveson has done is to propose a subtle middle way – a regulatory body with teeth, backed up by statute, but in a way that is several steps removed from direct government control. A genuinely free press is maintained, but with appropriate state intervention to check its excesses: in a way, it is the best of both worlds.
In sum, Lord Leveson's suggestions are consistent with the Christian concept of government stepping in to act as a check on bad behaviour. But his recommendations are so nuanced they manage to put a break on the moral free-for-all of the press without at the same time introducing heavy-handed legal over-regulation, and so are also harmonious with a Christian idea of freedom.
Some sections of the press will cry foul. But my edition of McNae's Essential Law for Journalists from as long ago as 1988 contains an introduction attacking the government for developing "a power of censorship more effective than anything... seen in Britain since the seventeenth century". Self-interested press complaints about government interference are nothing new!