Theological thoughts about the Leveson report

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will vote on Lord Leveson’s key recommendations concerning press regulation. Is there a theological perspective on this subject? Let me answer as a Baptist…

A commitment to protecting freedom of belief has always been a central concern of the Baptist movement, albeit expressed in various different ways. (I trace some of them in ch. 6 of my Baptist Theology, looking at Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, E.Y. Mullins, and Nigel Wright along the way.) The commitment is, for Baptists, profoundly theological, and also pragmatically inevitable.

Baptist theology (I there argue) focuses on the direct address of Christ to each particular human person, and so the primary responsibility of every human person for her own religious commitments. As Helwys famously had it, in 1612, ‘…man’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king will not answer for it.’ And nor will priest, bishop, pastor, prime minister, or anyone else. Anyone, in any role, who attempts to coerce belief is trespassing on the office of Christ himself, and so (in the classical Baptist theological logic) is simply and precisely an antichrist.

Pragmatically, Backus put the point well, if rather waspishly: ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every man’s goods and person; and so it ought to be; for truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men; to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome…’ Legislation simply cannot change what I believe to be true; this is obvious; and so legislating to try to change my – or anyone else’s – beliefs is clearly idle and futile.

From freedom of belief, it is not difficult to derive a commitment to freedom of speech – the state cannot coerce my belief, and should not force me to perjure myself by saying things I do not in fact believe (civic prayers and oaths were the great sticking-point for Williams). There are some potential issues at the edges of this commitment: public speech that might serve to destabalise the commonwealth, or to provoke violence or discrimination against an individual or group; Baptists would traditionally err on the side of defending even dangerous speech, finally for theological reasons (the security of the commonwealth is in God’s hands, not the governments’…); we would also traditionally insist on freedom of (religious) practice, which potentially raises more difficult issues (when the state judges my religious practice to be harmful to my children, or otherwise unethical, for example).

What of the issues addressed by Leveson? The freedom of the press has – rightly – been a noble and tenaciously-held ideal; in its classical form, however, it offers protection in one direction only, and that direction is now, probably, the wrong one. The history of Baptist calls for freedom of conscience that I have sketched makes this point well: it is striking, in reading early Baptist calls for the freedom of belief, to observe that they assumed that totalitarian regimes were normal. The early Baptist discussions were offered by writers who, although deeply counter-cultural in their vision, nonetheless assumed that the power negotiation ran between the magistrate and the subject, with no other centres of authority at work. In the context of nation-states in which the (state) church was an agent of the totalitarian regime – which is to say, the whole of early-modern Europe, more or less (this is obviously true for any Protestant nation, including England; I think it remains true in subtlely different ways for each Roman Catholic nation, but I omit here the necessary lengthy discussion about negotiations between prince and pope in different contexts) – the gradual development of a press was the establishment of a subversive, non-establishment, voice, and a subversive and non-establishment voice that could actually be heard. (In England, the point was made powerfully in the language of the ‘three estates’: clergy, nobility, and commons were united in preserving the regime; the rise of the ‘fourth estate’ – the free press – was a fundamental challenge to, or at least check upon, the established order.)

The press therefore had a privileged moral position, from a Baptist perspective: its was the voice that challenged the government whenever the government mistook itself for God. No doubt one does not need to be a Baptist (or other dissenting Christian) to applaud the rise of an estate that questioned, rather than upholding, the established order, but Baptists have an extremely well-worked out theology of why this was important.

I deliberately put that in the past tense.We can no longer credibly narrate the dispositions of power in the United Kingdom in these terms. The fourth estate is no longer the only interesting or viable challenge to the three estates of traditional power.

The rise of Nonconformist religion as a significant political force in the nineteenth century was probably the first crucial rupture to the settled order, but industrialisation and the rise of the corporation has been far more important. Consider very recent debates about taxation: the notion that the political negotiation is between the powers of the individual and the powers of the state, with no other players, is no more than ridiculous; multinational corporations treat national tax laws with contempt; when forced by public opinion to notice them, they choose an amount of tax to pay that, they believe, will satisfy the public, and inform the authorities of what they have decided to pay – as if this were less contemptuous!

Crucially, for the issues considered by Leveson, the press is deeply implicated in this. The point is not that ‘the fourth estate’ – a free press – has gained sufficient power to boss the other estates around, but that there is now a multitude of estates, with transnational financial clout being crucial to them all. To be free today, the press needs protection not from the state, but from international finance. Media companies could, and at present still can, buy power, and wield it with great effectiveness. The Leveson enquiry gave us enough evidence of that, surely?

More pointedly, the UK press has assumed the right to invade the privacy, and to traduce and defame, private persons, and has resisted any check on this right in the name of the ‘freedom of the press’. The glory of the fourth estate was its willingness to risk all to hold the establishment to account; its present willingness to tell lies about people to generate salacious headlines is very far from glorious, even if understandable. I say ‘understandable’ because the press is currently under some threat from new media: circulations of virtually every title are falling; and salaciousness does seem to sell, unfortunately. One of the other lessons here is that societies get the press they deserve. (Full disclosure: I have read at least two stories in national newspapers that mentioned my name that were simply false: neither troubles me at all, and I certainly have no desire for redress; but I know first-hand the standards of ‘accuracy’ that are adhered to by even our ‘quality’ newspapers…)

Leveson’s call to regulate the press, then, is not a call to limit free speech; it is a call to hold powerful corporations to account. It is important that the regulation is distant from government to prevent possible abuse; even more important that regulation has the power to keep international financial interests in check. The parliamentary debate tomorrow, it seems to me, recognises this on every side, happily; the question under consideration is whether legislative backing for a new regulator is necessary. This is a question of process, rather than policy – it is certainly not a question of theology; that said, my instinct is that Leveson is probably a more neutral guide than the present Treasury Bench on these questions, and so that the opposition proposal is the right one.

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