Who wants police chiefs to edit a free press?
In the atmosphere of press unfreedom created around Leveson, it seems ‘the public interest’ is now to be defined by… the Metropolitan Police.
What is meant by reporting in ‘the public interest’, and who is to define it? We are told that this is one of the big questions facing Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the British press. Now, it appears, we have an answer. In the non-brave new world of press unfreedom that the Leveson Inquiry is helping to create, the ‘public interest’ is apparently to be defined for us by…. the Metropolitan Police.
Last week Leveson started the second phase of his inquisition into the crimes against humanity, sorry, the ‘culture and ethics’, of the tabloid press, which is supposed to deal with relations between the media and the police. The first star witness was Sue Akers, deputy assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, in charge of the investigation into alleged criminal acts by newspapers. She baldly announced to Leveson and the world that there had been ‘a culture at the Sun of illegal payments [to police and public officials] and systems created to facilitate those payments’.
Never mind that the 11 Sun journalists and executives arrested on suspicion of bribing public officials have not even been charged with, let alone convicted of, any such offence. DAC Akers of the Yard apparently felt free to declare that all and sundry at the Sun had effectively been found guilty by a jury of one good woman and true (her).
Worse, the pious DAC indicated, this supposed corruption had not been carried out in the cause of good journalism: ‘The vast majority of the disclosures made [by officials] have led to stories which I would describe as salacious gossip, not what I would describe as being remotely in the public interest.’
The notion of senior uniforms ruling on what is ‘remotely in the public interest’, and thus what the press should and should not be reporting, might normally be associated with a nice little police state. Yet in the UK, the anti-tabloid atmosphere around the Leveson Inquiry has now reached the point where a police chief can try to lay down the law on what information we should be allowed to read and hear, drawing a line between information published as ‘salacious gossip’ (tabloid journalism, bad, open to prosecution) and stories in ‘the public interest’ (quality journalism, good, potentially justified). When did the Old Bill take on the new powers to police the minds of tabloid journalists and their readers?
This snobbish division between the ‘Goodies’ and the alleged ‘Baddies’ of the British press (to borrow Hugh Grant’s infantile phraseology) runs right through the Leveson debate about regulation. Now it has been given the Metropolitan Police seal of approval. Goodbye Press Complaints Commission, hello deputy assistant commissioner?
Many concerns have been expressed about ‘unhealthy’ and ‘too close’ relations between senior police officers and the Murdoch press. Yet those concerns are being exploited to justify a far more dangerous relationship, one where rather than the media poking around in police business, the Met take a close interest in the affairs of the press – with the collaboration of newspaper management and the support of crusading journalists.
Scotland Yard has been embarrassed by criticism of the Met’s early conduct of the phone-hacking investigation, and revelations about links to the press which led to the resignation of its commissioner. Now the Met’s new leadership is trying to reassert the Force’s moral authority by pursuing a zealous campaign against the evil tabloids that allegedly besmirched the honour of naive and innocent police chiefs.
In this surreal atmosphere, Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun estimates that the police war on the heinous atrocities of hacking phone messages and buying information from public officials has now become the largest-scale investigation in British criminal history. Leading lights among Kavanagh’s fellow Sun journalists have been arrested in dawn raids while police squads tear up their floorboards. Meanwhile News Corp’s own Management and Standards Committee has been tearing up the book on protecting journalists and their sources, handing over millions of emails and internal documents to the Met and setting up the Sun’s own people for arrest. So much for the ‘ethical’ backlash against bad practice in the press.
These are dangerous developments in the policing of a free press, the like of which have not been seen in recent times. Yet so shrunken is the esteem in which press freedom is held in the UK today that even supposedly liberal-minded journalists have effectively turned into police cheerleaders. Take Nick Davies, the crusading Guardian reporter whose investigations are credited with bringing the phone-hacking scandal to light. After DAC Akers’ appearance before Leveson last week, Davies wrote correctly characterising the inquiry as a ‘defining power struggle’ between the state and the press. Yet he came out as an Akers backer in that struggle. So blinded are high-minded journalists by anti-tabloid bigotry and Murdoch-phobia today, many seem to have lost sight of the simple truth that state encroachment is far more dangerous to a free press than the most debased abuse of such freedom by journalists could be.
There are some forgotten principles that need to be reintroduced into this debate. For instance, that the freedom of the press, like any aspect of free speech, is not divisible or something that can be rationed out only to the ‘Goodies’. That it should not be up to a deputy assistant commissioner – or indeed a Lord Justice – to decree what is or is not in the ‘public interest’ to publish; that is a matter for the public to decide, on the basis of all the information that is freely presented to them. And that anybody with an ounce of feeling for liberty should strive for all they are worth to get the police, and the judges, out of the debate about the future of the press.
Meanwhile, Nick Davies has just been announced as the winner of the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism. According to the Guardian report of their man’s triumph, ‘The organising committee, in its citation, praised Davies’ “dogged and lonely reporting”, the impact of which forced “a humbled Rupert Murdoch” to close the News of the World…’ Thus a journalist wins a top prize for helping to close down a newspaper, while a senior cop is praised for laying down the law on what the press should be free to publish. Welcome to the alternative unfree universe of Planet Leveson.
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).)
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