You might have thought this was one war that would be all over by this summer, never mind next Christmas. After all, the big phone-hacking trial, focused on events at the now-closed News of the World up to 2006, finished last month with the conviction of one former editor, Andy Coulson, and the acquittal of another, Rebekah Brooks. Wasn’t hacking what the whole row was supposed to be about?
Yet the free press wars are carrying on regardless. As the fog of war clears, it should be obvious by now that (as in all wars), things are not really as they may have first appeared. The phone-hacking scandal was, as spiked argued from the moment the first shots were fired, merely a pretext for pursuing the wider war aims of sanitising the UK press. Defending the high-profile victims of hacking became a flag of convenience beneath which a coalition of illiberal liberals advanced their campaign to purge the press of whatever does not suit the tastes of those for whom ‘popular’ is a dirty word.
The war on press freedom has not ended with the hacking trial, but simply moved to new fronts. In the forefront, of course, is the tabloid-bashing Hacked Off campaign fronted by actor Hugh Grant and former funnyman Steve Coogan. Hacked Off might look like a two-men-and-their-blog outfit, but it has far more clout than any other little fringe lobby group. It has exploited the weakness of the political and cultural elites’ attachment to freedom in order to shape the agenda on press regulation: instigating the Leveson Inquiry showtrial of the entire ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the press; ghostwriting the report’s key proposals for state-backed regulation; stitching up the squalid deal for a regulator backed by Royal Charter in an infamous late-night meeting with the leaders of the political parties; and then issuing a public demand for the newspapers to bow the knee to the Royal Charter signed by ‘200 leading cultural figures’ from the liberal elite.
Backed by these big battalions, Hacked Off’s supporters are continuing their campaign to sabotage press freedom. What they are up to now was spelt out this week by Hacked Off’s new executive director, Joan Smith. The contempt for freedom which motivates it, meanwhile, was being revealed behind the scenes by Steve Coogan.
Joan Smith is a broadsheet writer who assured the Leveson Inquiry that respectable journalists such as her were ‘a different breed’ from mongrel tabloid hacks. As the head of Hacked Off, she is apparently delighted that the political parties have put in place the Royal Charter on press regulation (despite the fact that, at the time this compromise was first proposed, the Leveson lobby dismissed it as a sellout). However, Hacked Off is also furious that no national newspaper has yet agreed to sign up to the state-recognised regulator, with most of the big publishing groups preferring their own Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), due to take over from the Press Complaints Commission next month. Despite the Leveson lobby’s supposed support for ‘voluntary independent self-regulation’, the only two of those words it really values are ‘regulation’ and ‘independent’ (of the press, not the state).