A Forced Virtue?

In the last few days we have seen the publication of the Leveson Report with its recommendation of some form of statutory regulation for the press, the announcement that the Government favours setting a minimum price for alcohol to reduce abuse and, in Australia, the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes to improve public health. Each, in its different way, is looking to law to make us virtuous.

No one (well, no sane person, surely) would deny that the some of the British press has behaved abominably on occasion; nor would anyone dispute that alcohol in excess can lead to violence and potentially fatal illness or that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health; but is regulation the best way to deal with any of them? I have to confess to having doubts, although part of me wants to add that anything is worth a try, given the misery that can result. There is, however, an important distinction to be made between regulation of the press and attempts to control usage of alcohol and tobacco.

A free press is an important element in any democracy. You have only to think for a moment of the way in which the Syrian government has clamped down on every medium of communication — press, internet, telephone — to see how subversive any element of government control can become. Regulation of alcohol and tobacco is not in the same class. In fact, we can point to the important role of government in eradicating the horrors of Gin Lane to provide a precedent. We know, of course, that regulation will take time to work; that it won’t go down very well with lots of people; but one day society will look back and wonder how we could ever have got into a situation where we countenanced such socially destructive habits.

The case for press regulation seems to me much more nuanced. I have not read the Leveson Report, only some of the published extracts, but shouldn’t we distinguish between law-breaking and ethics? Where the press breaks the law, a penalty should follow; but who is to decide the ethical standards by which the press should operate? We are often told that we live in a multi-cultural society. It is certainly true that there is only very limited agreement on what constitutes ethical behaviour. Can we legislate for ethics? Whose ethics should they be? Although the internet was expressly ignored by Leveson, there are questions for bloggers, too. I try to ensure that what I write is both truthful and consistent with a Christian understanding of charity. That means there are times when I do not write all I know or think. The decisive factor is not, will this boost my ratings (= sell copy) but, will this be constructive/helpful. A journalist might well argue that I can only consistently take such a view because writing isn’t my job. It will be interesting to see how the debate develops, but we need to do some hard thinking about what may be in store for us all. Can law make us virtuous; or do we need to be virtuous to make good law?