Leveson: a menace to democracy, too
So why do so many liberal-minded observers praise the Lord Justice and his QC sidekick as a two-man ‘British spring’?
British prime minister David Cameron, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, former prime ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond, with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and leader of Her Majesty’s opposition Ed Miliband bringing up the rear. The roll-call of witnesses called before the Leveson Inquiry of late has read more like the invitation list for an official Royal Jubilee celebration or the Cenotaph memorial on Remembrance Sunday. It is a wonder that Lord Justice Leveson didn’t summons the Queen and Baroness Thatcher for the group photo.
My memory might be going, but wasn’t this inquiry launched in response to revelations that one (closed) Sunday newspaper had, several years ago, employed one dodgy private detective to listen to the voicemail messages of some celebrities, public figures and high-profile crime victims? How has it transmogrified into an interrogation of the entire British system of politics and government?
It was bad enough to begin with. From the very start the Leveson Inquiry has been, as we argued on spiked, ‘the enemy of a free press’. The phone-hacking scandal became the pretext for a judicial probe into the entire ‘culture and ethics’ of the UK media. It is a showtrial in which the tabloid press, on trial for its freedom, was found guilty before the first witness was called; a genteel inquisition whose mission is to purge the ‘popular’ press of that which the elite finds distasteful, and consolidate an atmosphere of conformism across the media.
Now, however, it has got even worse. The Leveson inquisition turns out to be not only the enemy of a free press, but a menace to democratic politics, too. The grim spectacle of an unaccountable judge, backed by his legal sidekick and a celebrity chorus, passing judgement on a free press has developed into the grimmer-still spectacle of these unelected figures passing judgement on politics and democracy.
This extraordinary judicial inquisition into the UK press has expanded into something even more extraordinary – an inquisition into all of the cultural and ethical ills of our society, apparently empowered to banish evil everywhere from parliament to the police force, and to right wrongs ranging from corruption in government circles to pornography in the local newsagents.
We are faced with an almost medieval spectacle of a judge and his top lawyer acting as priestly men of wisdom, apparently drawing their authority from some higher power, to interrogate and pass judgement on elected politicians and other public figures from the mortal world. That might have seemed strange and worrying enough. Stranger and more worrying still, however, is that so many rational and liberal-minded figures have chosen not merely to kowtow to the unreasonable power of the inquisition, but to cheer on the inquisitors.
The ever-expanding remit of Leveson has confirmed the central role which the press plays in our political and public life today, a position assumed by default amid the ruins of the other pillars of the establishment. The media is the dominant voice in public affairs and the biggest story in town. Once an inquiry is about the media, it becomes all-consuming.
article continues after advertisement
The most revealing figure in this is that of Robert Jay QC, Leveson’s lead legal counsel. A borderline unctuous figure, Jay has adopted an almost apostolic role as a man on a mission, the seeker of truth, the grand inquisitor. He was praised in legal circles as the ideal lawyer for such a ‘non-partisan’ role. In his questioning of witnesses, especially those connected with the Murdoch and tabloid press, Jay appeared non-partisan only in the sense of acting like a figure from a higher ‘ethical’ plane, floating above the grubby fray and peering down with disdain at those beneath both his nose and his contempt. He even lectured them about their poor use of the English language while showing off his own dictionary-swallowing skills in making ‘pellucidly clear’ points, highlighting ‘nugatory’ arguments and examining the ‘propinquity’ of politicians.
Yet rather than criticise or lampoon Jay’s inflated status, many observers have praised and encouraged it. The good Lord Justice Leveson and his apostle Robert are depicted as fighting the noble fight to save the press and the whole political system, and possibly the entire planet. Instead of questioning where the rattling train of an inquiry was heading, commentators and campaigners have rushed to get their own pet hates about the press and politics added on to the inquiry’s endlessly elastic agenda.
It was another reflection of how central the media has become to public life that an inquiry into the press should be widely seen as an opportunity to sort out all the perceived ills of our society. Many lobbyists seemed to look upon Leveson and Jay as a sympathetic alternative to the type of democratic political debate that proves so resistant to their causes. How much easier to persuade these well-schooled, quietly spoken gents than the rough-house mob in the world outside the courts! The Lord Justice and the QC were turned into political fantasy figures, a sort of two-man British Spring by those desperate for some ethical-legal shortcut to their chosen goal.
Before long, different lobby groups were appealing to Leveson to sort out issues to do with privacy law, ownership of the press, Page 3 pin-ups and political sleaze, alongside changing the entire culture of the national media, banishing a hated press baron from our shores, and possibly bringing down the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government.
As the political and media lobbyists load greater and greater importance and hope on to the inquiry, imagining it as a substitute for politics, one dedicated Labour-and-Leveson-supporting columnist declares that, ‘The Leveson inquiry isn’t about criminality, or one minister, or even one proprietor: it’s really about what kind of democracy we still have’. Of course it is; so far as democracy is concerned, who needs messy elections when you can have a nice, neat judge-led inquiry?
Even if the prattish Tory minister Hunt was eventually brought down by the fallout from the Leveson inquisition, it would be nothing to celebrate. A far bigger danger to democracy than anything he might have done is the idea that a Lord Justice should sit in judgement on governments and the press, and be encouraged by supposedly radical pundits and lobbyists to disinfect democracy and further sanitise a messy free press.
At the start of his inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson said that the central question he sought to answer would be ‘who guards the guardians?’. The more important question that we suggested should be posed then, and which seems even more pressing now, is: who judges the judges?
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).)