In the wake of Justice Leveson’s report into press ethics, new life has been breathed into an 18th century quotation. The hallowed words of George Washington are frequently used to give weight to the argument for free speech and they duly appeared again today, cut and pasted into a host of commentaries supporting David Cameron’s principled stance on Press freedom. It’s fascinating to reflect on the context of Washington’s famous words, because freedom of speech was actually not the main thrust of the Newburgh Address in which the cautionary maxim originally featured.
On March 15, 1783, General Washington, facing a serious threat to his authority and to the civil government of the emerging nation, confronted a mutinous gathering of army officers who were planning what amounted to a military coup against the Continental Congress. The Continental Army was stationed in Newburgh, New York, awaiting the outcome of peace negotiations between Great Britain and the United States. The men were restless and anxious to return home. Many of them had received no pay in over eight months and they were nearly bankrupt. An anonymous letter had been circulated, condemning Congress and calling for a revolt.
Washington delivered his speech, expressing disapproval of the sentiments expressed in the letter, but his audience was unimpressed. Taking stock of the situation, he removed from his breast pocket a letter he had received from a member of the Continental Congress. He hesitated for a moment. His hand went to his pocket again and he fumbled clumsily with a pair of spectacles. Before reading the letter, he paused and said: “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.” The contents of the letter were no longer relevant and the words he spoke superfluous. The eyes of most of his audience had filled with tears. Washington had won their hearts and minds. And the crisis was averted.
I don’t know if David Cameron keeps a pair of spectacles in his breast pocket, but he may need to make a melodramatic gesture of his own in the next few days as he attempts to face down a mutiny over the Leveson Report. The Coalition is officially split on the issue. In the meantime, we should welcome the Prime Minister’s reluctance to introduce the first press statute since censorship laws were abolished in 1695.
Freedom of speech does not mean we should tolerate the scurrilous journalism of the Murdoch media empire revealed during the Leveson inquiry. Indeed, laws already exist to punish most of this egregious behaviour. But there is a very real danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and Cameron is right to be wary of “crossing the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.” Leveson himself noted that a free press is critical to a democratic society and was hard won in this country over 300 years ago.
In America, freedom of speech is protected from infringement by the First Amendment to the Constitution. George Washington was the first to sign it. If David Cameron can resist calls to license the press, he will significantly enhance his own legacy in this country.