Leveson: drawing up the battlelines

Mick Hume, author of a new book on press freedom, says questioning of the Leveson Inquiry is in danger of being too little, too late.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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As the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the British press draws nearer, the battle lines are being drawn for the latest chapter in the centuries-old struggle over freedom of the press. In the process it appears that the scales are belatedly falling from some eyes. It is becoming clearer that – as we have argued on spiked from the start – the Leveson Inquiry has not been an ‘opportunity’ to improve journalism, but an attack on a free and open press.

Yet while the battle may be only just beginning, it will effectively be all over unless more critics of the Leveson crusade are prepared to take a stauncher and more consistent stand in defence of press freedom.

Having gone slightly quiet since the inquiry’s hearings ended, the issue burst back into the headlines last week after Leveson sent out a formal 116-page letter to all major newspapers, warning them of the criticisms that his final report is likely to make. It was, according to those who saw it, a 116 page ‘diatribe’ filled with ‘excoriating’ criticism, grouped under blunt headings such as ‘self-regulation has failed’, in which Leveson threw ‘the kitchen sink’ at the newspaper industry. And that is only the brief summary of what is to come.

Meanwhile, the effects of the Leveson leviathan on the UK press are already being felt. A report this week noted that the number of defamation cases brought against newspapers has fallen lately. It suggested that one reason might be that the press is becoming wary of publishing anything too controversial or sensational about celebrities and public figures in the shadow of Leveson. Some might see that as a welcome development. Others among us might fear that it is a symptom of a tamer, more timid atmosphere settling over the press. Which is one reason why, incidentally, it was a good thing that the Sun broke the industry’s omerta and published those ‘saucy’ holiday snaps of Prince Harry.

As it dawns on more people that the Leveson Inquiry might represent the latest attempt to bring the British press to heel, some who have previously expressed support for the process now appear to be getting slightly colder feet. There was a general reaction of horror from newspaper editors and executives to the critical letter Leveson sent out last week. Chris Blackhurst, editor of the Independent, even broke convention and went public with his ‘shock and outrage’, accusing Lord Justice Leveson of ‘loading a gun’ to be used against the newspaper industry. In response to these criticisms, the Leveson Inquiry machine predictably issued a statement expressing its ‘disappointment’ that anybody had dared to comment on its ‘confidential’ diatribe, and warned in its usual legalese that the fact that some had broken its rules was ‘not without significance’. Leveson apparently seems to believe that nothing should now be published on these crucial issues without his approval.

Many of those who have been campaigning for a tough new regulator to discipline the press will no doubt be delighted by Leveson’s latest moves. Some however seem less sure. There are also reportedly growing misgivings within the Coalition government that set the inquiry up in the first place. Education secretary Michael Gove has already infuriated Lord Justice Leveson by suggesting his inquiry was creating a ‘chilling atmosphere’ in the media. Now The Times reports that prime minister David Cameron is not too keen to pass a law giving a new regulator statutory backing, and might be willing give some form of ‘self-regulation’ a last chance to clean up the press. Liberal Democrats within Cameron’s coalition responded by warning that the government must follow Leveson’s lead.

As the battle lines are drawn up for another struggle over press freedom in the UK, it is good that the big issues are coming into the open and questions are finally being asked about what Leveson might want to do. However, much of the recent criticism looks like too little – and rather too late.

There have been two remarkable things about the Leveson Inquiry since it was set up in the wake of phone-hacking scandal last year. The first was the way that the polite inquiry effectively turned into an Inquisition on a mission to purge the press – especially the heretical tabloids – and impose a new orthodoxy on the media. The second was the fact that this crusade, cheered on by a chorus of celebrities and campaigners, attracted so little criticism or dissent.

From the start, Leveson succeeded in forging a public consensus behind the notion that the British press has been too wild and free, and needs to be brought into line. This conformist consensus represents the most pressing threat to a free and open press in the UK today, far more than any ‘Orwellian’ fantasies about state censorship. And it has not been challenged in the recent debates about Leveson’s proposals and statutory versus self regulation.

Chris Blackhurst of the Independent did us all a great service by boldly going public with his angry response to the Leveson letter, making clear that the Lord Justice was ‘loading a gun’ against the industry. Yet even Blackhurst conceded that some of Leveson’s excoriating criticisms were ‘certainly justified’, and seemed at pains to emphasise that these criticisms did not relate to practices at his own paper or others at his more highbrow ‘end of the market’.

Establishing such a class distinction between newspapers at different ends of the market has actually been at the centre of the Leveson mission and the debate about press regulation. As argued in my new book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press, the crusaders have sought to draw a line between the ‘ethical’ press and the ‘unethical’ tabloids, with the clear implication that only those in the former camp deserve the privilege of genuine freedom of expression. The only way to counter that crusade is to take a consistent stand for press freedom for all, and insist that liberty is not a privilege to be doled out, like charity, only to the ‘deserving’.

There are similar problems with the suggestions for a new system of self-regulation, as an alternative to one with statutory backing. The Leveson debates have reflected and reinforced a consensus that Something Must Be Done to crack down on the too-free tabloids. That assumption underpins all of the proposals currently being discussed. Thus the sort of ‘self-regulation’ favoured by Lord Hunt of the outgoing Press Complaints Commission, and possibly by prime minister Cameron, would involve creating a new ‘independent’ regulator that would enjoy greater powers to investigate and police the press than those currently being used by the Metropolitan Police to pursue tabloid editors and journalists. Some freedom that would be.

This is why I have argued that, so long as the conformist consensus for purging the press holds, it does not much matter what specific proposals Lord Justice Leveson comes up with, or whether the government endorses them. Unless we can take a firmer stand against the prejudices and agendas underpinning the crusade, and insist that the British press in all of its forms is not nearly free or open enough, the battle seems in danger of being lost almost before it begins.

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 is published by Societas and is now available in print and kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

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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