The UK press is on trial for its freedom…

… and the tabloids have already been found guilty by Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry/inquisition.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The Leveson Inquiry, set up by the UK government in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, has just begun and is not due to report until late 2012. After the very first day’s proceedings, however, the result of the judicial inquisition led by Lord Justice Leveson already seems clear enough.

Behind the charade of neutrality, the British press is on trial for its freedom here. And the verdict is in: the tabloid press in particular has already been found guilty. Only the precise sentence remains to be decided.

Why else would Tory prime minister David Cameron, with all-party support, have ordered a judge-led inquiry not only to look into the phone-hacking cases but to scrutinise the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the UK press? It seems unlikely he expects it to conclude by praising the sophisticated culture, sound practice and high-minded ethics of the media. The rest of the tabloid press might avoid the death sentence already imposed on the News of the World. But it seems set to take a punitive beating and be subject to supervision orders.

The headlines this week are once again all about the extent of phone-hacking practised at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and possibly other papers. But it has been clear all along that this circus is about far more than that. Of course the interception of murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail was indefensible, which is why nobody has ever tried to defend it. It was an extreme symptom of a degenerative strain in British journalism, the shift from investigation to voyeurism. As such it should prompt journalists to look at themselves, while the police look into any criminal aspects.

Instead, the voicemail hacking of the high-profile victims and celebrities has been turned into a pretext for the authorities to interrogate the entire press, using the Dowler family along with the likes of Madeleine McCann’s parents as emotive human shields behind which they can advance their crusade to ‘clean up’ the media industry. It was explained this week that part two of the inquiry, looking into the broader culture and ethics of the media, would unfortunately have to precede part one, examining phone-hacking in detail, because too many of those allegations are still the subject of criminal investigations. In fact this turnaround inadvertently confirms the real priority behind the Leveson inquiry – to put the press, rather than some hackers and their backers, in the dock.

For instance, as Robert Jay, the smug-sounding QC acting as counsel to the inquiry, laid out in his opening remarks, they will not confine their investigation to phone-hacking but will also examine any other ‘illegal and unethical’ practices used to obtain stories, from subterfuge to blagging. Yet these are all the tools of investigative journalism, used by reporters who often have to sail close to the wind to uncover truths that somebody does not want to see revealed. I always recall the words of William Randolph Hearst, a US press baron and the Rupert Murdoch of his day, who defined news as ‘something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising’. Underhand methods, possibly including rooting through somebody’s bins and voicemails, are often the only way for the media to get answers others would rather not give.

Of course the inquiry’s top lawyer was at pains to insist that they were not opposed to investigative journalism as such. So what examples did he give of investigations of which Leveson and Co might approve? Surprise, surprise, he cited the Guardian’s obsessive campaign over News of the World phone-hacking, which began long before anybody suggested Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, and seemed driven largely by the conviction that the Murdoch press was evil. He also endorsed the Daily Telegraph’s high-minded revelations over MPs’ expenses – which arguably were not produced by investigative journalism at all, but by simply republishing leaked documents. The irony is that one British paper still investing serious resources in making and breaking investigative news stories was the tabloid News of the World. But those distasteful probings did not meet with the legal establishment’s approval.

As Lord Justice Leveson himself made clear in his opening statement, the key question his inquiry will address is not who knew what about hacking but the far grander issue of ‘Who guards the guardians?’ Which means: how is the press to be best policed and controlled – by law, or by a strengthened watchdog, or what? David Cameron has said in advance that if Lord Leveson’s inquiry were to recommend full statutory regulation of the press, then that is what we would get. The decision on how far to reverse the centuries-long struggle for press freedom is effectively in the hands of an unelected, unaccountable law lord.

Yet almost everybody is going along with the ‘important’ Leveson inquiry and the need for new measures to tame the press. Even self-serving celebrity muppets such as Hugh Grant have been accepted as the authentic defenders of ‘the public interest’ against tabloid prying. The only voices speaking up for the freedom of the tabloid press seem to be the editors of those papers, backed by a few more traditionalist establishment figures. The liberal elite, however, appears to be fully behind Lord Justice Leveson and his legal guardians. This should hardly come as a shock; the allegedly liberal Guardian newspaper has led the campaign for more police and court action against tabloid journalists, and a Labour spokesman on the media recently proposed that journalists be formally licensed, so that they could be ‘struck off’ the register if they failed to meet the standards demanded by the authorities. (Meanwhile, almost the only ‘alternative’ to full statutory regulation being proposed is to police the press via a more muscular Press Complaints Commission with mandatory powers, which is now headed by another unelected, unaccountable Lord.)

The outlook of the liberal elite today was captured by Leveson’s opening statement to his inquiry, where he said he believed the freedom of the press to be ‘fundamental’ to ‘our way of life’, before adding the obligatory ‘But…’ They all believe in press freedom ‘But…’ these days. And the buts are getting bigger. Lord Justice Leveson went on to insist that he had ‘no wish to stifle freedom of speech or expression, BUT I anticipate that monitoring will take place of press coverage [of the inquiry] and it might be necessary to conclude that those vital rights are being abused’. In other words, the media is ‘free’ to remain on message.

Enough. In all the debate about reform and regulation, the underlying assumption is that the media – and especially the ‘feral’ tabloid press – is now too free to run wild and trample over decency and privacy. But the real problem is very different.

There is not too much media freedom in Britain today, but too little. There are not too few controls and restrictions on what can legitimately be published and broadcast, but already too many – both formal and informal.

Some newspapers in Britain and elsewhere might be going ‘free’ in financial terms, under pressure from declining sales and the new online media. But in almost every way that matters, the press is less free – thanks both to external constraints and the internal corrosion of the foundations of good journalism.

The UK press is less free from the threat of state regulation or of tighter ‘self-‘regulation; less free from the stultifying conformism that generally makes censorship unnecessary; less free in the sense of being willing and able fearlessly to investigate the truth; less free in terms of being independent of the political class; less free in the sense of being objective and open-minded; less free under the influence of the narrow-minded, emotionally correct, celebrity-centric, you-can’t-say-that culture of intolerance which has drained much of our public debate of substance and meaning.

These are the issues we should be debating in the open, not watching while the fate of a free press is deliberated over by government-appointed judges and lawyers.

And worse, we are left with this sorry state of press freedom at a moment when our society is in the midst of an economic and political crisis that has posed new questions and exposed many of the old answers as redundant. There can rarely have been a more pressing need for a free and open debate about how we got here and where we might want to go in future. And the media in all of its shapes and sizes has never been more important as a forum for public debate, the decline in the authority and standing of every other public institution leaving it with a virtual monopoly on shaping the national discussion.

Even before Lord Justice Leveson and his legal team get to work on it, there is no such thing as a free press in the UK – and we have never needed one more than now. The last thing we need is a fixed state-appointed inquiry to make matters worse. Never mind ‘who guards the guardians?’ Who will judge the judges?

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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