A strong press keeps the elites in check

George Osborne has been announced as the new editor of the Evening Standard. 
George Osborne has been announced as the new editor of the Evening Standard.  Credit: Lucy Young 

Now more than ever, Britain needs the rigorous analysis that newspapers specialise in. Last week the Brexit Bill was passed in the Commons; Article 50 is about to be triggered. The country is on the verge of an incredibly complex set of negotiations that will remake its future. Government, and the opposition, need to be held to account. Britain needs a vibrant and free press.

Last Wednesday, the Government U-turned spectacularly. Be in no doubt that the press had a lot to do with that.

Politicians understand this, as George Osborne will attest. Many have asked how the former chancellor can balance being an MP with being editor of The Evening Standard. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to note that when casting around for a role that would keep him in the public eye, Mr Osborne chose a job in the newspaper industry. It has been suggested that he believes an editor’s seat puts him in the best position to scrutinise the Brexit process and, perhaps, keep Theresa May on her toes.

There is absolutely no doubt that newspapers help to keep the powerful in check. This newspaper takes the view that Brexit can work and that Mrs May has the skills to see it through. We have also shown what fearless, politically unbiased and independent reporting can achieve.

Take the Budget. Philip Hammond made a terrible mistake when he chose to raise National Insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed. The Telegraph was quick to point out the error. We showed how much it would cost the hard working and how it broke from Tory historical tradition. Our polling revealed just how angry the voters were about it. Our political team exposed the infighting behind the scenes: a Cabinet that felt it had been misled, a Treasury that insisted it was just following orders. And Janet Daley did the job of a great columnist and doggedly outlined where the Government was going wrong in its treatment of the self-employed. Last Wednesday, the Government U-turned. Be in no doubt that the press had a lot to do with that.

Investigative reporting is not, as some MPs think, about collecting scalps. It is about shining a light on the innermost workings of government. The Telegraph broke the 2009 expenses scandal that showed an unacceptable abuse of the system. We will be equally determined when it comes to identifying errors in policy. For instance, criticism of Mr Hammond’s Budget does not stop at the NICs hike. Scrutiny is also required of its innocuously titled “Making Tax Digital” plan, which would require that millions of people file quarterly online tax returns. Not everyone has the ability to do that; costs of filing will effectively rise for some. As Janet Daley argues, there is a revolution in self-employment going on. The Government should encourage it, not kill it with tax and regulation.

Philip Hammond's omnicshamles of a week Philip Hammond's 'omNICshambles' of a week
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Plenty of the rich and powerful hate scrutiny of this sort. The past few years have seen a campaign to regulate the press through Parliament, and thus open up the possibility of gagging it, while piling up legal costs that might deter newspapers from asking difficult questions. None of this is necessary to protect the vulnerable: the UK press operates some of the toughest self-regulation in the world. This is a political assault designed to have a chilling effect upon free inquiry.

The Telegraph certainly won’t be intimidated. We were not intimidated when we were denied entry to Alex Salmond’s famous resignation press conference – and we will be asking all the right, awkward questions about the SNP’s latest attempt to break up the Union. Why does Nicola Sturgeon want to hold a referendum before the consequences of the Brexit talks are fully known? And while we are on the subject of attempted political comebacks, why does Gordon Brown propose offering Scotland new powers supposedly to “bribe” it to stay in the Union when all the polls suggest that the Scottish do not particularly want to leave?

Many politicians wish they could give speeches where there are no questions or pass bills that go unread. But such a democracy would quickly become a tyranny. The press is critical to keeping our society open. It should remain unfettered – free to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the elites feel.