Today The Times dedicates its entire leader page to the questions coming out of the inquiry, arguing strenuously that the preservation of press freedom ‘requires resisting any form of statutory regulation’.
It says: ‘This newspaper is an unrelenting advocate of press freedom. It is an implacable opponent of government oversight — direct or indirect — of the press. Journalists should question politicians, not answer to them. There should be no price for critical coverage, no prize for currying favour […] This translates into a deep-seated opposition to any form of state regulation of the press. If any future regulator is run, overseen, empowered or appointed by government, then politicians will loom over the press.’
The daily appearances from the great and the good, as well as the not-so-great and the downright rotten, serve occasionally to eclipse the central issue that is under investigation: do we need government oversight of the media to guarantee that flagrant abuses such as those at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal do not occur again?
The Times writes that ‘in the absence of a First Amendment — the part of the US Constitution that forbids Congress from abridging freedom of the press — the principle of being able to report and comment has a great tradition in Britain but little legal protection.’ It is therefore important, it argues, that the British press should continue to be able to do its work, free of parliamentary control.
The leading article concludes: ‘Looking back over the past decade, it is clear that the biggest failing of the press has been to tell its readers too little, not too much. In examining the alleged threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to war, in reporting the calamitous risks taken by banks before the financial crisis and in understanding the dysfunction at the heart of British government for much of the decade, newspapers did not delve nearly deeply enough. The greatest danger today is that the phone-hacking scandal results in a new set of rules that misses the bigger point. The public deserve to know more, not less.’
The question of press regulation is a live one, but as News International takes to the stand the theatrics of star testimony should not distract from the critical questions under investigation.