No ‘victims’ veto’ on press freedom

Celebrity demands for David Cameron to back state regulation of the press have revealed the true mission of the Leveson inquisition.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech

Being a victim of historical phone-hacking by the News of the World (deceased) entitles you to public sympathy (less so if you are a PR-hungry celebrity in the first place of course), and possibly to redress through the courts.

What it does not entitle you to is any sort of veto over the future of a free press in the UK. Yet that is what the celebrity anti-tabloid crusaders, and the illiberal campaigners who use them as voiceover artists, now clearly expect as a result of the Leveson Inquiry.

Hacked Off, the campaign for statutory regulation of the press, has written an angry letter to prime minister David Cameron demanding that he agrees to pass a new law to police the press if and when Lord Justice Leveson proposes it in his report, expected out next month. Anything less, it makes clear, would be a ‘betrayal’ of the victims whom Cameron promised to satisfy. The letter is signed by the usual celebrity suspects – Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Charlotte Church, Jude Law, JK Rowling, Max Mosley, etc – alongside more sympathetic figures such as survivors of the 7/7 London bombings and members of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

The outraged Hacked Off letter was written in response to press reports suggesting that Cameron might reject statutory-backed regulation even if Leveson backs it. In the most revealing passage, the signatories express their anger at backtracking remarks from the prime minister’s spokesman, suggesting that Cameron ‘had not intended to give a veto to any particular victims over the new system of regulation’. This is the ‘betrayal’ they are really talking about. They believe the prime minister promised to allow the victims of phone hacking an effective veto over the future shape of press regulation, and expect him to fulfil that pledge.

This ridiculous letter has done us all the service of spelling out what the entire Leveson Inquiry has really been all about. It was never about phone-hacking. That should have been left to the police to investigate (which they are doing on an irrationally grand scale). Instead, those historical offences linked with one (closed) tabloid newspaper employing a single private detective were turned into the pretext for Lord Justice Leveson’s judicial probe into the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the British media.

The Leveson Inquiry/inquisition has been a mission to purge the ‘popular’ press, using high-profile victims as human shields, high-ranking celebrities as voiceover artists, and high-minded talk of ‘ethics’ as a code for advancing an elitist agenda: the ‘ethical cleansing’ of the media. Thus the demand from the crusaders today is not for redress for the individual victims of specific offences, but for the government to set up a state-backed regulator to tame the entire press industry and wash the naughty newspapers’ mouths out with soap.

If it was not so serious it would be laughable to see the celebrity crusaders insist that Cameron must approach Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals with ‘an open mind’. There has been little sign of any such openness in their evidence to Leveson and public pronouncements, with Grant accusing the tabloid press of nurturing ‘a culture of pure evil’ and Coogan dismissing press freedom as ‘a lie’ made up by newspapers, while their snooty supporters in the liberal media declare that tabloid hacks are ‘a different breed’ and ‘not like us’. A more narrow-minded display of respectable bigotry would be hard to imagine.

Behind all the talk of protecting ‘ordinary people’, the elitism of the tabloid-bashing crusaders also shines through in the Hacked Off letter. Written in long-winded legalese by the campaign’s lawyers and academics, it refers to the celebrity signatories, without explanation, as ‘the Module 4 CPVs’. Who or what these might be, we ‘ordinary people’ can only wonder. It turns out to mean the Leveson Inquiry category of ‘Module 4 Core Participant Victims’, which might leave most none the wiser. This coded talk confirms that the letter is part of a closed elite discussion about how far to turn back the clock on the historic struggle for a free press.

What is most disturbing about this, as it has been all along, is not actually the antics of such risibly puffed-up characters as Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan. It is the extent to which the supposedly liberal-minded journalism academics and civil liberties campaigners who hide behind them have gone over to the other side in the culture war about press freedom. As ever, the shrillest voice demanding statutory regulation around the PR letter was not Charlotte Church but Brian Cathcart, the left-wing journalist-turned-professor of journalism who drives Hacked Off. Some might think that the way such people have abandoned the defence of press freedom in its hour of need is the ‘betrayal’ we should be worried about.

Campaigners for tougher press regulation have expressed their disgust that Cameron should be wavering on statutory-backed regulation for ‘political reasons’ to do with opposition within his government, and demanded that the new system of press regulation must be kept ‘free from politics’. What they mean, of course, is that politicians should intervene, but only to do as they are told and pass laws to set up a powerful new policeman of the press.

Nobody wants to see politicians regulating the press. But some of us think the idea of the press being policed by judges or ombudsmen or other unelected, unaccountable state-backed apparatchiks is just as bad, if not worse – at least we can still get rid of politicians if we object to what they do. Worst of all is the notion of a regulator handing an effective veto over a free press to any self-proclaimed victims of media misdeeds. That sounds like a sort of celebrity Star Chamber to decide what is fit for us to read and write, just as the King’s Star Chamber had to licence everything that was printed in the past.

It would be little wonder if the prime minister was having doubts about the prospect of statutory-backed regulation of the press. Setting up and operating such a system of indirect state interference could turn into a nightmare. This is of course Cameron’s own fault, having painted himself into the corner by setting up the Leveson Inquiry with carte blanche to give the press a kicking in the first place. In response to the letter, Cameron again indicated that he would agree to Leveson’s proposals so long as they were not ‘bonkers’ or too ‘heavy-handed’.

In any case, as we have argued on spiked, the ‘alternative’ proposals for a new system of ‘self-regulation’ are little better. They would set up an ‘independent’ regulator with more powers to investigate, expose and punish newspapers than those currently enjoyed by the ‘heavy-handed’ police teams.

All sides of the debate remain too much in thrall to the celebrity crusaders because they have accepted the central myth of the post-hacking furore: that the press is too free to be run wild and must be subdued and sanitised. It is high time those who care about the future of freedom of expression in our society raised a banner to declare that the press is not nearly free or open enough, even before a new regulator wades in.

Freedom of the press is for all, involving the right both to publish what you see fit and to read, see or hear all that you choose. That is far too important a liberty to sacrifice to anybody’s demands for special treatment and protection. There are many problems with the UK press. But the solution is never less freedom.

A free press must mean one that is free, not from being judged or subjected to the normal criminal law, but from being restrained or punished on the grounds of taste or ‘decency’ or offended feelings or outraged sensibilities. The misuse of our freedom by some is not an excuse for allowing the authorities to misappropriate it – or high-profile victims of phone-hacking to claim a veto over it. That would be seriously ‘bonkers’.

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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Topics Free Speech

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