Defend a free press - don’t just guard the Guardian
Yes, the police threat to the liberal newspaper was outrageous – but who invited the authorities to crack down on the press in the first place?
It was, as all liberal-minded people (and Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail) agreed, an egregious assault on press freedom for the Metropolitan Police to threaten legal action to force the Guardian to reveal its sources. So there was much celebration and not a little smug satisfaction in media circles when the Met, under pressure from within and without the legal system, dropped the action last week.
Where, the Guardian editors and their outraged high-level supporters demanded, did the Met ever get the ‘ill-judged’, ‘misconceived’ and ‘perverse in the extreme’ idea that they could order the Guardian to tell them who leaked details of Operation Weeting, the phone-hacking investigation?
It’s a good question. Where on earth could Inspector Censor and PC Prodnose have got the notion that it was their business to investigate, arrest and prosecute journalists, or interfere with the operations of a free press? Step forward the moral crusaders at the Guardian and its allies.
For years they have been demanding more police and legal action against the Murdoch press and those allegedly involved in phone-hacking, inviting the authorities to police the media more closely. Then these illiberal liberals throw their arms up in horror when the authorities try to take advantage of their invitation to investigate the high-minded ‘good guys’ at the Guardian as well as the lowlife at the defunct News of the World. Their naivety is only exceeded by their elitism. Give the state a licence to interfere with the press, and you should not be surprised if it tries to exploit it – even if today’s spineless state officials ultimately lacked the gumption to take on the Guardian.
The threat to take the Guardian to court was doomed from the start. It seemed clear that the Met’s heart was not really in it when they issued a bizarre statement to justify the action, which spent most of its time praising the Guardian as if that paper were the conscience of the modern police force:
‘We pay tribute to the Guardian‘s unwavering determination to expose the hacking scandal and their challenge around the initial police response. We also recognise the important public interest of whistleblowing and investigative reporting - however, neither is apparent in this case. This is an investigation into the alleged gratuitous release of information that is not in the public interest.
‘The Metropolitan Police Service does not seek to use legislation to undermine Article 10 of anyone’s human rights and is not seeking to prevent whistleblowing or investigative journalism that is in the public interest, including the Guardian‘s involvement in the exposure of phone hacking.’
If it was strange to hear the police posing as the guardians of press freedom, it was equally odd that, beneath the outrage, some high-profile protests at the Met’s threat to the Guardian basically took a similar line. We are on the same side in the phone-hacking crusade, the liberal press and lawyers appealed to the police, so why turn on the Guardian?
This touching display of faith in the progressive ethics of Plod was put in a typically infantile nutshell by the actor and political idiot Hugh Grant, who continues to transmogrify into a caricature of the PC prime minister he played in Love, Actually. Why, pleaded Grant at the Liberal Democrat party conference, were the ‘good cops’ investigating the Murdoch papers’ phone-hacking now picking on their ‘fellow goodies’ at the Guardian? This is political struggle recast as rom-com fairytale between goodies and baddies.
The general bewildered assumption among the liberal critics was that the threat of action against the Guardian went against the grain of the Met’s phone-hacking investigation. They could hardly have been more wrong. The police’s move against the underhand methods of the liberal as well as the tabloid press spelt out the true message of the phone-hacking furore: that there is too much press freedom altogether in Britain, and that the police and courts have a responsibility to move in and tame the feral media.
And who has been campaigning for tougher legal action against ‘rogue’ journalists for years, driving the phone-hacking scandal through parliament and demanding more intervention? The same allegedly liberal journalists and lawyers who were up in arms when the Met turned its attention from the tabloids to the Guardian, squealing ‘Do it to them, not to us!’.
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It was quickly clear to all, including the Crown Prosecution Service, that the Met had overstepped the mark on this occasion. The law generally gives journalists the right to protect their sources these days, thus excusing the Guardian from a repeat of the humiliation it suffered in 1983 when it complied with a court order and betrayed a young civil servant, Sarah Tisdall, who had leaked information on the siting of US cruise missiles in Britain. Tisdall was sentenced to six months in jail.
When the Metropolitan Police did a hurried u-turn and dropped the action this time, a ‘senior source’ at Scotland Yard told the Guardian: ‘Obviously, the last thing we want to do is to get into a big fight with the media. We do not want to interfere with journalists.’ The paper hailed this climbdown as a victory for its sterling defence of press freedom.
Yet in reality, the post-phone-hacking crackdown, which the Guardian’s anti-Murdoch crusaders did so much to start, is all about the authorities seeking to ‘interfere with journalists’ – and not only those implicated in hacking murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone messages. This interference goes way beyond police investigations of individual reporters and editors. The government, after all, has set up a judge-led inquiry to decide on the future of the British media and how to regulate the press more tightly. That is state interference with journalism on the grand scale, at a time when there is already far too little press freedom in our society. It was telling that the opposition Labour Party’s culture spokesman thought the way to win some cheap applause at his party conference on Tuesday was to call for the creation of an official register of professional journalists - basically a licence to write - so that those who fail to meet the standards expected (by who?) could be ‘struck off’ like doctors guilty of malpractice.
The need now is for an unequivocal response, not just to the Met chancing its arm with the Guardian, but to the entire political-legal-moral war on the idea of a free press. Instead, the liberal defenders of the Guardian have been the main cheerleaders for the authorities taking firm action.
They have tried to excuse this impressive display of double standards by depicting it as a black-and-white issue, with a clear moral divide between what Hugh Grant calls the ‘proper press’ and the improper tabloids. In fact, investigative journalism is often a grey area where the law is concerned. It was pointed out recently that back in 2006, a top Guardian reporter, David Leigh, had admitted to using phone-hacking techniques in pursuit of a story. By encouraging the state to police the media more closely, the liberal press have made a rod for their own backs, even if the Met backed out of trying to use it this time.
However the Guardian-Grant fanclub might attempt to twist it to suit their tastes, the truth remains that you cannot have a free press for some but not for others. Indeed, as with all free-speech issues, it is more important to defend freedom for those of whom you – and especially the authorities – disapprove. As Karl Marx had it, if you want a properly free press, you cannot grasp the rose without the thorn.
Instead, the fact that the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone was indefensible – which everybody accepts – has been turned into an excuse for refusing to defend tabloid journalism against further interference and regulation. Even the £2million, £3million or £Xmillion of compensation now to be paid to the Dowler family is apparently not enough to pay the Murdoch papers’ debt to society. (And nor is any decent journalist allowed to ask exactly what good such a payout for listening to a dead girl’s mobile messages is supposed to achieve.)
So while there was uproar over the Met’s half-hearted threat to its new mates at the Guardian, it remains open season on the tabloid press. Even if you never read the News of the World (which millions did) and do not want to know what’s in the Sun, Star, Mirror or Mail, this should be a cause of serious concern.
Because the immediate danger to a free and open press in Britain today is not the threat of comprehensive state censorship - it is the stifling atmosphere of conformism already being created around the phone-hacking scandal. Suppose that those allegedly liberal media campaigners got their way, and the authorities restricted themselves to only ‘interfering’ with tabloid excesses, while leaving alone those who conformed to the Hugh Grant Law on behaving like ‘goodies’. What sort of a victory for a free press or a democratic society would that be, to find ourselves living under a one-party state of non-jackbooted Guardian values?
Despite the self-congratulatory air around the Met’s recent climbdown, the true state of the debate about press regulation today was illustrated by reports that the next chairman of the under-fire Press Complaints Commission is to be the former army chief, General Richard Dannant (that’s Baron Dannant to the likes of us). It looks as if, in a desperate bid to save the remnants of self-regulation and stave off total legal regulation, the British press industry is saying to the government’s judge-led inquiry: ‘Look, no need to beat us up from the outside, we can appoint our own army hardman to do it from the inside!’
Thus does the future of press freedom in Britain appear to be trapped between a rock and a hard place – aka an army general and a judge. That really is ‘perverse in the extreme’.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.