The Leveson Inquiry is the enemy of a free press

Now it's out: Lord Justice Leveson wants quasi-state regulation - in the name of 'press freedom'.

The Leveson Inquiry into the UK press, we can now see, is a two-ring circus. Out front is the showbiz tent, where high-profile victims of phone-hacking, self-righteous/obsessed celebrities and every type of attention-seeker and me-too bandwagon-chaser can be paraded before the media. Behind all this heat and noise, there is the more serious forum, where some of the issues at the heart of the inquiry are now being clarified by Lord Justice Leveson and his advisors.

And as they clarify the issues, one thing is becoming very clear. This is more than a polite exchange of views. It is a war for the future of a free press in Britain. And in that war, the good Lord Justice and his army of lawyers and media lackeys are the enemy, not potential allies. The Leveson Inquiry is not a neutral body to be persuaded. It is an imposition that must be opposed.

Since the Inquiry returned this month, Leveson’s key focus has been on framing the actual terms of a future system of press regulation. A succession of newspaper editors and leading media figures have filed in to tell the Inquiry that they are fundamentally opposed to state intervention and political interference in a free press.

In response, a rather defensive Lord Justice assured us a fortnight ago that he, too, believes a free press to be ‘a fundamental bedrock of our society’. Leveson insisted he would not call for political control of the press. ‘I would be very surprised if government regulation ever even entered my mind’, he said.

However, Leveson made clear, he is not interested in simply altering the current system of self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission: ‘It won’t do just to tinker around the edges.’ Instead, Leveson indicated for the first time, what had entered his mind was the creation of ‘an independent mechanism that deals with complaints, regulation and resolution of disputes’. At the centre of this would be a new, powerful ‘independent’ watchdog of the press.

Since then, Leveson has repeatedly raised during Inquiry sessions the idea of having a ‘statutory backdrop’ to reform of the press. That is, passing a law to give the new watchdog muscle, in particular to force all newspapers to sign up to the regulatory body. Much debate in the past few days has focused on to what extent such a ‘statutory backdrop’ would represent the thin of the wedge for politicians to step up state interference in the press.

No doubt that is an important issue. But it misses a more important prior point. The Leveson Inquiry is not just a forum to debate state intervention. The Leveson Inquiry itself is state intervention in the media.

The Inquiry was announced in parliament by the prime minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, not simply to look into the phone-hacking scandal but to examine the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the media. It has the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is headed by a senior judge, Lord Justice Brian Leveson. It sits in the Royal Courts of Justice. The government made clear from the start that it would seek to implement whatever system of press regulation Leveson proposed.

A body set up by the head of Her Majesty’s Government, fronted by a leading law officer of the Crown, deploying the resources of the judicial machinery and with the power of the legislature behind it is no ‘independent’ talking shop. It is a politico-judicial intervention and a state attack on a free press, by any other name.

Whatever final wording Leveson might come up with months down the line, he has already set the parameters for the future of the press. Of course the state will not intervene directly to tell newspapers and other publications what they can write. That never entered anybody’s head as a serious idea. The state will, however, seek to impose measures in law to force the press to comply with the orders of its new toothy watchdog – a form of indirect state regulation and licensing of the press.

This is not only Leveson’s pet scheme for rewriting the ‘culture and ethics’ of the UK newspapers. The Coalition government has already made clear that it endorses the Lord Justice’s plan. Alongside the Leveson Inquiry, MPs are currently holding a parliamentary select committee on privacy and injunctions. Jeremy Hunt, the Tory secretary of state for culture and the media, gave some little-noticed but far-reaching evidence to it last week.

Hunt made clear that ‘the prime minister and I’ are seeking a system of press regulation that has ‘proper sanction-making powers’. He spelt out that they were not talking about ‘statutory regulation of content – which no one wants and which parliament would resist’. Instead the government wanted to give ‘statutory underpinning’ to an ‘independent body’ which could discipline the press, in the same way that the General Medical Council does with the medical profession. The secretary of state suggested that only those publications which agreed to the new rules would be legally defined as newspapers and thus entitled to zero rating for VAT.

Newspapers required by government law – sorry, ‘statutory underpinning’ or, if you prefer, ‘statutory backdrop’ - to obey a body with ‘proper sanction-making powers’, and those that object punished by being made to pay an extra tax? That sounds something like an indirect twenty-first century version of the old system of state licensing of the press. This is what Lord Justice Leveson wants to propose, and the secretary of state for culture and the media promises to impose. Everything else about the Inquiry seems to be, if not exactly piss and wind, then largely talk and small print.

So what do the top media figures who have declared their fundamental opposition to political interference have to say about Leveson’s suggestions for indirect state regulation - or ‘co-regulation’ as it has been disingenuously called?

In a breathtaking display of subservience to the regulators, the alleged liberal press have largely come out in favour of it. Indeed, Hunt credited the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, with thinking up the idea of imposing VAT on dissident papers.

In his evidence before Leveson last week, Rusbridger declared that the British press had been ‘under-regulated and over-legislated’. (Little wonder he got such an easy ride from the lawyers.) Well, Rusbridger was half-right; the press has indeed been weighed down by libel laws, injunctions and all the rest. But it would be a naive newspaper that imagined it was going to get less onerous legislation in return for inviting tighter regulation. The more likely result of kissing the hem of Lord Justice Leveson’s robes in that way is that we will end up with more of both.

Other editors and senior figures have taken a more robust attitude against any suggestion of a ‘Leveson’s Law’ to back up a stricter system of press regulation. Yet most of them still feel obliged to play the Leveson game, paying lip service to the notion that the Inquiry is a very important event that could have a positive impact on the future of a better press etc, etc.

And then, just when you think things could not get much worse for the cause of a free press, up pops New Labour’s priggish head girl, new shadow culture and media secretary Harriet Harman, to announce that she is going to be ‘a champion of press freedom’. Harman says she ‘balk[s] at the notion of press regulation’, because her experience in government has taught her to fear the power of the state. Err, yes indeed, no doubt we all recall how hard she and other New Labour ministers fought to stop the state interfering in people’s private lives and imposing new limits on free speech. Today she is ‘full of praise’ for Leveson, and only wants newspaper editors to volunteer ideas to the law lord for a new ‘solution’ (that is, independent system of regulation) ‘rather than have one imposed on them’. So Labour’s alternative is for the press to avoid unpleasantness by going like lambs to the slaughter. That’s the sort of ‘champion’ we need. Oh, and her other priority is to campaign against the big issue facing the media today - Page 3 pictures. Free press, anybody?

It would be far better now if those of us who want to make a stand for a free press faced up to the fact that Leveson is a central part of the problem, and can be no part of the solution. The phone-hacking scandal is a matter for the police to investigate and journalists to deliberate over. It should never have been turned into a pretext for tighter policing of the press. Nothing good can come of allowing a law lord the power to prescribe the limits of press freedom.

The Leveson Inquiry into ‘media ethics’ is itself founded on an untruth about the British media. The press does not have too much freedom today, but too little. There is not too little regulation and control of what we can write and read, but far too much already.

The shortfall of freedom in the UK press is not only about the law and quasi-state regulation. It is also crucially about the sort of dullard conformism that normally makes censorship unnecessary. Such conformism is again on show in the general public acceptance by the media that Leveson’s inquisition of the press can somehow be a ‘good thing’ or an ‘opportunity’. It is clear in the acceptance of Leveson’s divide between the Good and the Bad in the British press, aka the respectable and the tabloid papers. As I wrote on spiked at the very start of the Inquiry, the press is on trial for its freedom and the tabloids have been found guilty in advance. And too many others in the media seem happy to see them hanged. Those who dream of helping Leveson create a sanitised media world where Guardian-style conformism holds a monopoly should be reminded again that a free press is indivisible. What we need, to pinch one of their favourite words, is more diversity in the media.

Instead of lining up tamely for interrogation before Lord Justice Leveson and his legal henchmen, why not put some questions to them. Such as, what business is it of a judge to lay down the law on how a free media must manage its affairs? By what authority do lords, lawyers and ministers take it upon themselves to define what sort of reporting might or might not be in the ‘public interest’ in a society where the public are free to choose for themselves? And when did Newspeak become the official language of the British state, so that judges and governments can use talk of press freedom to justify enforcing its opposite?

Time to accept that there is little point trying to persuade Leveson and Co to punish the miscreant press with a lighter hand. No more canoodling with the enemy. If it is a war for a free press, let us at least try to fight to win. Telling the good Lord Justice where he can stick his statutory backdrop would be a start.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. His book, There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press - and we need one more than ever will be published later in 2012.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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