Who wants to live in
Hugh Grant’s ‘ideal world’?
The tabloid-bashing actor-crusader returns to read Lord Justice Leveson’s script on ‘light touch’ state regulation of the press.
He’s Back, as they say in Hollywood. Hugh Grant, the floppy-haired fop of an English actor, may not much resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. However, Grant’s return to the fray shows how the battle over the future of press freedom is hotting up – and how the big guns are all on the side of the ‘we believe in a free press, BUT…’ battalions.
Grant has become the poster boy for the campaign for more regulation of the UK press, following the phone-hacking scandal, and the voiceover artist for the message of powerful players in the political and cultural elite. His tabloid-bashing appearances before parliamentary committees and the Leveson Inquiry have won many admirers in the media. Serious journalists who normally show contempt for celebrity culture, and who scoffed at Grant over the tabloid exposure of his tryst with a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard, have become Hugh groupies as they swoon at his noble stand against what he told Leveson is the tabloids’ ‘culture of pure evil’. As one critic put it, ‘Hugh Grant’s phone-hacking role is his greatest yet’ (which may or may not be saying all that much). His apparently evidence-free accusations that his own phone might have been hacked and his flat possibly burgled at the behest of tabloids have been breathlessly reported as facts.
Grant has used his newfound status as the media’s favourite moral crusader to front the push for a system of tighter regulation with a ‘statutory back-stop’ – that is, legally enforceable powers to punish the press. Such a system of ‘co-regulation’ is the preferred option of most campaigners for more control, and just happens to coincide with what appears to be the thinking of Grant’s new great mate, Lord Justice Leveson.
This week Grant returned to the field, to do battle with the proposals put forward by Lord Hunt, chairman of the old, widely discredited Press Complaints Commission, to try to save self-regulation. Hunt wants newspapers to sign up to a system of contracts, committing them to comply with a new regulatory body’s rulings, as an alternative to whatever system of statute-backed regulation Leveson might favour. To show his willingness to change, Hunt has already announced the formal abolition of the PCC.
Grant and those he calls ‘my legal friends’ are having none of such shilly-shallying about contracts. The actor was invited to see Lord Hunt this week – a mark of his new status – and then invited on to the BBC TV’s flagship Newsnight programme to lay down the law on the need for regulation backed by the power of the state. Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman at least maintained a suitably cynical air about Grant’s saint-like standing, introducing him as ‘the press spokesman for Hacked Off’, the tabloid-bashing campaign set up in response to the phone-hacking scandal, and describing Grant as a world-famous actor ‘best known for his appearances on Newsnight’.
Lord Hunt, Hugh told Jeremy, is ‘a great defender of the freedom of the press and quite rightly so. But’ – there is always a But - ‘I and my fellow campaigners and the victims we represent’ see things differently. Note how nobly Grant has assumed the role, unelected and unrewarded, as representative of victims everywhere.
Grant’s main point was that Hunt’s voluntary contracts would not work because ‘my legal friends who know more about this than I do’ (which begs the question as to why they were not appearing instead), think it could not deal with ‘the Desmond problem’ of newspapers refusing to sign up (Richard Desmond, owner of the Express and the Star papers, boycotts the PCC), and cannot see ‘what the penalty is for breaching this contract’.
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So, suggested Paxman, ‘you’re in favour of government taking control of the newspapers?’. Oh dear, Hugh was disappointed in Jeremy. ‘I knew you were going to say that’, he replied in exasperation. ‘And it’s always annoying because it’s such an over-simplification to think it’s a binary choice between Zimbabwe at one end and a free-for -all at the other. There are so many gradations in between.’
Grant’s solution to all the press’s problems ‘lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes’ in ‘statutory regulation with a very light touch. Otherwise there really is no way you can enforce your system of regulation, your code of ethics.’ What is needed apparently is a system of ‘significant’ fines for offending newspapers, with a ‘sort of statutory back-stop’ that could say to non-compliers ‘no, this is now the law, you do have to comply with this’.
And yes, Grant agreed, this regulatory system would also have to apply to magazines, online newspapers and ‘massive well-publicised blogs’, though not necessarily to small blogs that ‘can’t influence people too much’. As ever, the real concern among media reformers is not the press itself but the stupid people they can ‘influence’, aka hoodwink and dupe them, and pander to their vulgar tastes.
But what about Twitter, asked Paxman, where millions of people might follow a stream? Stumbling off his memorised script, Grant suggested that Twitter falls ‘within the law of libel and etcetera and um I don’t see there’s any reason why that should fall that side of this’. Glad you cleared that up Hugh. But, Paxman pressed him, surely libel law would also apply to the newspapers you want to regulate? ‘Err yes it would’, conceded Grant, ‘so maybe, maybe you do regulate Twitter’, thus extending without a moment’s thought the scope of statutory regulation. Sensing he might be getting a little out of his depth, Grant added ‘I mean these are the problems that Leveson is wrestling with now. He is the one to be listened to.’ Along with, of course, Lord Justice Leveson’s self-appointed representative on Earth, Hugh John Mungo Grant.
In the middle of these exchanges, Grant made perhaps his most telling remark of all: ‘And no one, listen, in an ideal world of course the press should be self-regulating. It’s only by looking at history and the repeated failure of that to happen that regrettably it’s come to this.’
In Hugh Grant’s ‘ideal world’, perhaps Notting Hill booksellers really could get off with Julia Roberts, Britain really might have a dashing, dancing prime minister who believes in Love, Actually, and all newspapers would be like the Guardian – or ‘the goodies’, as he memorably described them – pursuing high-minded ethical journalism rather than celebrity gossip. So long as they conformed to that ‘ideal’, the press might be left to regulate itself.
But of course we do not live in Grant’s or anybody else’s ideal world. In the real world, the exercise of liberty is a sticky business and always has been. Not everybody who chooses to use the freedom of the press will have the moral standards or the piety of a Hugh Grant or a Max Mosley. But that is no excuse for impinging on that fundamental freedom or forcing others to comply with what Grant calls ‘your code of ethics’. Whose code might that be, then? Talk about transcendental ‘ethical codes’ is itself always a code for pursuing particular interests and agendas – in this case, the demand for restricting freedom of expression.
Could anything be worse than being forced to live in Grant’s ‘ideal world’? He even has the nerve to suggest that ‘looking at history’ shows the need for state-backed regulation. In fact, what a glance at British history shows is the long struggle to free the press from legal restraints, licensing, taxation and other means of state control, now apparently to be casually, though ‘regrettably’, tossed aside.
Grant’s mix of learned lines from his ‘legal friends’ and off-the-cuff suggestions for yet more regulation matters because he is acting as the celebrity PR spokesman for a powerful current of elite opinion. Lord Hunt’s alternative proposal for contracts would seem to have little chance because, having conceded the need for firmer regulation, he will find it hard to stand against the legal reformers.
In the end, however, it does not really matter what precise form the new system of regulation takes. What matters far more is the culture of conformism that is being created around the media through the phone-hacking scandal and Leveson, which renders Zimbabwe-style state censorship as unnecessary as it would be unacceptable.
It is shocking to see how few voices are being raised against the new conformist consensus in favour of taming the media, apart from a few tabloid journalists, a Tory minister and of course spiked’s own Counter-Leveson Inquiry. A sign of how far the cultural rot has gone is that journalism academics, supposedly the guardians of the media’s future, are in the forefront of the press-bashing crusade for tighter regulation. Grant even told Leveson he would be happy to see them staffing his new regulatory body, which should surely be a matter of shame for any self-respecting journalist.
Before everybody signs up as official Hugh Grant groupies, let’s just make it clear to him and his backers that in the real world there are not ‘so many gradations’ of freedom. You either have freedom of the press, or you don’t. No buts, and no ums.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)