Now Leveson wants heretics ‘gagged’
So why has almost the only public figure to question the inquiry into the press been a leading Tory member of the government that launched it?
There has been some surprise at the weekend’s reports that Lord Justice Leveson rang Britain’s top civil servant to demand that education secretary Michael Gove be ‘gagged’ in February, after the Tory minister had expressed concern that the Leveson Inquiry into the UK press was creating a ‘chilling atmosphere’ over the media. Surely that nice Mr Leveson would not have done anything so, well, authoritarian?
In fact these reports should not have come as much of a surprise to anybody who has followed what was being said and done at the Leveson Inquiry rather than the fairytale version reported in much of the media – still less to anybody who has followed spiked’s Counter-Leveson Inquiry.
From the first we have argued that the phone-hacking scandal had become a pretext for something far more dangerous. The inquiry is a showtrial of the tabloids, an inquisition designed to purge the popular press and reinforce a conformist orthodoxy across the media. Lord Justice Leveson’s apparent demand that Gove be ‘gagged’ only confirms the inquiry’s mission: to enforce and endorse a ‘chilling atmosphere’ of You Can’t Say That – firstly about the Leveson circus itself.
No, the real surprising question is rather different: why has almost the only prominent public figure to ask any probing questions about the authority of the Leveson Inquiry to rule on the future of a free press been a leading Conservative member of the coalition government that set it up in the first place?
Many leading media people, top politicians, other public figures, starry celebrities and Piers Morgan have all effectively gone along with the inquiry, many hailing it as an ‘opportunity’ for media reform, even a progressive fighter for justice and ‘ordinary people’. Almost all have seemingly accepted the right of Leveson to interrogate and pass judgement on press freedom. Little wonder that the good Lord Justice felt able to open the latest phase of the hearings by demanding that ‘all-party support’ must continue for his one-inquiry state. The only wonder is that it took some so long before they finally noticed this week the ‘arrogance’ of the legal inquisition’s attitude to elected politicians.
The chapter of the story that has prompted this controversy began when Gove, who was a Times journalist before entering parliament, made some off-the-cuff remarks to a parliamentary press gallery lunch in February, in which he mentioned that he saw the ‘dangers’ of the inquiry already having a ‘chilling’ effect on the press and freedom of expression. After months of Leveson being cheered by a chorus of lawyers, lobbyists, serious journalists and celebrities, this was almost the first time that a public figure apart from tabloid journalists had issued a negative murmur against the Inquiry. (The only other notable critic was the father of a victim of the 7/7 terrorist bombings who, despite having had his phone hacked, dismissed the inquiry as a celebrity circus that would be exploited by politicians with a grudge against the press, for which offence he was roundly condemned.)
Gove’s lunchtime remarks were reported in an odd paragraph here and there. That proved too much for the Lord Justice Leveson, apparently outraged by the very suggestion that an elected politician should question his unaccountable authority and righteous mission. We have now learned that Leveson ordered his officials to track down every word Gove had uttered, and personally phoned the cabinet secretary to insist that the secretary of state should be put in his place and told to shut up.
Having demanded that Gove be ‘gagged’, the Lord Justice then summoned the minister to appear before the inquiry to explain himself. Quizzed by Robert Jay QC, Leveson’s grand inquisitor, Gove further upset Leveson by his insistence that freedom of expression must take precedence over any regulation, his argument that the cure could be worse than the disease, and particularly his well-aimed observation that ‘by definition, free speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time’. Outrageous!
There then followed a telling little exchange between the Lord Justice and the secretary of state. When Leveson suggested that publications which refused to sign up to his new system of regulation could be hit with higher costs, the minister suggested that meant ‘the law would punish those who chose not to enter a voluntary method of regulation’. No, no, insisted an irritated Leveson, all he meant was that those who refused to join a ‘sensible, approved system’ of press regulation would have to face the financial consequences. To which Gove responded, in his familiar dry style, ‘All I would say to that is - sensible to whom? Approved by whom?’
Yes, minister. Who is to say that standards which Lord Justice Leveson might approve are the sensible ones for the public press in a democratic society? That was the sort of pertinent question that should have been asked six months earlier, when the hearings started, and everybody was busily signing up to the Leveson-Jay fanclub. Back then, in his opening remarks Leveson had said that a central question for the inquiry would be ‘Who guards the guardians?’ (as in the press). As we pointed out at the time, a more pressing question still would be: who judges the judges?
Clearly annoyed by Gove’s refusal to give way on the primacy of press freedom over all other considerations, Lord Justice Leveson at one stage blurted out ‘Mr Gove, I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don’t’. Yes he really does. They all do, at every turn. Claiming that, of course, you support freedom of speech while undermining it in practice is typical of the ‘we believe in press freedom, BUT…’ lobby that now dominates discussion of the media and has made the inquiry its tool for ‘butting’ the press into submission.
Whatever anybody thinks of Michael Gove’s policies on education or anything else, he is right about this one. But then he has a track record on free expression. I declare an interest, in that in 1999 when he was the Tory comment editor at The Times and this writer was the editor of LM magazine (née Living Marxism) he made me a columnist, primarily, I assumed, because he was interested in letting different ideas bloom. Such an open-minded attitude is of course anathema to the culture of You Can’t Say That. And indeed to the coalition government, where some might suspect Gove’s view of Leveson is unlikely to be a majority one.
What should be considered ‘outrageous’ is not that Gove should question the inquiry, or even really that Leveson should demand that he be ‘gagged’ as a heretic in response. Both were clearly expressing their positions (even if Leveson did it secretly). The worry is that so many others who claim to be defenders of free speech and civil liberties have voluntarily gone along with the inquisition of the press, even becoming cheerleaders for the inquisitors, apparently because they see defending Lord Justice Leveson as far more important than a proper defence of a free press.
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).)