Press freedom - or a totalitarian Britain

Heaven only knows what they would call me now in this at once sensitive and insensitive age. As Margaret Thatcher's Press secretary for 11 years, I copped a lot of abuse and ridicule.

It did not do me much harm. Indeed, in my retirement, I find my notoriety is an extremely commercial commodity.

I rejoice in being called, among many other things, the sewer but not the sewerage, a mound of poisoned suet, a rough-spoken Yorkshire Rasputin and Mrs Thatcher’s personal Rottweiler. They also called me her vicar on Earth, which is somewhat contradictory.

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It was – and remains – like water off a duck’s back. Sticks and stones may break my bones but calling me names never hurt me.

It is true that I worked in a gentler, more inventive, era and did not have to contend with the pestilential internet. But, with certain provisos, I do wish that people would not take so seriously the often empty-headed exhibitionists who are colonising the ether with their tweets. Are you listening, Donald Trump?

My provisos stem from the coarsening of society in the last 25 years with its free use of filthy and obscene language, often directed at women, especially Tory women MPs, and racialism. The lingering anti-Semitism in the Labour Party – or more accurately Momentum – is a disgrace and a disqualification for office.

My contempt for once moderate and humanitarian Labour MPs who put up with Jeremy Corbyn’s mob increases by the week.

It is against this background that we are seeing new assaults on free speech from many angles. In the process, the laws of defamation and pornography, generally observed by newspapers, are brushed aside by the malcontent Twitterati.

As if that were not enough, we are assailed by political correctness at every turn. Hypersensitive souls lurk behind every sculpture, portrait, sign and label demanding their removal. It is no longer acceptable to some to distinguish between a man and a woman, notwithstanding Adam and Eve. Gender neutrality is the order of the day.

It is ages since I could preside over a meeting as chairman. Instead, I am consistently transmuted into an inanimate chair.

Such is the state of our education system that obviously very few people have heard of the French philosopher Voltaire, who famously said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Oh Voltaire, wouldst thou were living at this hour.

I recognise that President Trump is not exactly an example of balanced thinking – more a mouth disengaged from brain – but does he deserve to be kept from these shores for fear he would not be welcome? Can we no longer entertain our principal ally lest he provoke a riot by activists? If we can’t, we are already ruled by the mob.

Another high on the narcissistic scale – to wit, Sir Richard Branson – led to Virgin trains banning the Daily Mail before backtracking. This is no way to run a railway, especially when newspapers, unlike trains, operate reliably on time.

Didn’t Virgin see that this was likely to be counter-productive? Newspapers are entitled to expose, condemn, criticise, lampoon and entertain us with their censure. What is more, they inevitably have the last word.

This always assumes that the Government and Commons will tell the unelected House of Lords where to put its current attempt to muzzle a free Press. It is almost beyond belief that their Lordships should seek to bring the Press under state control.

Yet that is precisely what they have in mind in latching on to a Bill to update Britain’s data protection laws. They want all newspapers that fail to sign up for state regulation to be liable for the legal costs of anyone who brings a complaint against them, even if the publication wins.

Just imagine what that would do to the local Press with its limited resources and already fighting for its life against the weakening of community life and competition from the internet to which advertising has migrated.

You would not think that virtually all newspapers are already governed by an independent regulatory body chaired by a neutral Appeal Court judge with power to order front page corrections and impose fines of up to £1m.

Prime Minister Theresa May is clearly dismayed by the Lords’ incipient dictatorship which some see as vindictive. We should all join her in the fight to preserve Press freedom. Otherwise, you will soon wake up to a fate worse than death – a totalitarian Britain.