In defence of ‘shameless anti-Leveson propaganda’

As many liberal journalists and ‘hackademics’ desert the cause, it is time to take a stand for the freedom of the press to be an unruly mess.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Free Speech

On 21 October, Mick Hume took part in a debate entitled ‘Stop the press: the media after Leveson’, at the Battle of Ideas in London. His opening comments are published below.

There is absolutely nothing new about scandals and inquiries involving newspapers. But what I think is new is the widespread loss of faith in the idea of a properly free press – especially within the supposedly liberal media elite itself.

This is the underlying problem we need to address, before we get too far into the details of whatever new system for regulating the press Lord Justice Leveson might propose in his report. Unless we can challenge the fashionable idea that the press is too free, it won’t matter what precise system is introduced, the war will be lost.

Last night I watched the latest episode of BBC 2’s anti-political comedy The Thick Of It – basically their take-off of the Leveson Inquiry. The one good line came when an inquiry grandee is attacking Malcolm Tucker, the show’s Alastair Campbell figure, by quoting what the Guardian said about him. ‘The Guardian’, sneers Tucker, ‘the newspaper that hates newspapers’.

That’s no joke. And it’s not just the Guardian. We might refine it to say they despise popular newspapers, popular being a dirty word in some circles, and fear and loath their readers. Attacks on the popular press have always been a coded attack on the populace; those who demand firmer regulation and control of the press ultimately desire to regulate and control what the public are allowed to read, hear – and perhaps even think.

Much of the liberal media has abandoned belief in a free press – or as they say these says, ‘We believe in a free press, but…’. And the buts are getting bigger.

Look at the spectacle of so many lining up to support and cheerlead the Leveson Inquiry into the entire ‘culture and ethics’ of the British media. That has been a judicial inquisition which anybody with a liberal bone should have recognised as an act of state intervention in the affairs of a free press unseen in living memory.

At the start of his inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson said the key question was ‘who guards the guardians?’. As my esteemed fellow panellists have pointed out, that is a perfectly legitimate question. The trouble is nobody asked the other important question: who judges the judges? How has an unaccountable judge assumed the authority to propose how far the clock should be turned back on the historic struggle for press freedom?

The other key question posed at the start of the inquiry was: who should decide what is in ‘the public interest’? The one thing we can be certain of is that the public will have no say in deciding what might be in the public interest to publish. When Ian Hislop suggested to Leveson that readers of the News of the World should be invited to tell the inquiry why they read Britain’s most popular paper, it sent a shudder of horror through the legal elite gathered there. The very notion that members of the public might be involved in a public inquiry!

Yet a liberal paper such as the Guardian saw fit not only to submit to Lord Justice Leveson’s authority but to confess to him that the British press had been ‘under-regulated’. Did they mean they need more regulatory help in editing their paper? Or, like those middle-class parenting experts believe, is it only the lower classes who require more instruction in how to manage their offspring?

When the phone-hacking scandal broke, more shocking to me than what some dodgy private detective had been up to was the reaction of those who turned this specific crime into a pretext to try to purge the entire press of that which was not to their taste. Among the worst culprits have been journalism academics. Some of these ‘hackademics’, most of them former journalists, have become the frontline laptop warriors in the crusade to purge the press and impose state-backed regulation, to the point where Mr Max Mosley says he would be happy to have journalism academics staffing a new regulatory body to spank the tabloids. What are they teaching young aspirant journalists about freedom of the press?

Just this morning [Sunday 21 October], The Sunday Times published an article about the threat of the Leveson Inquiry to press freedom, quoting both me and my new book. This quickly prompted an outburst of critical tweets from Brian Cathcart, the man behind the Hacked Off campaign who writes Hugh Grant’s script, outraged that a newspaper should dare to publish such ‘shameless anti-Leveson propaganda’. Cathcart the shameless pro-Leveson crusader is a left-wing former New Statesman journalist who is now the professor of journalism at the University of Kingston, London. An even more elevated journalist-turned-journalism academic, John Lloyd, now Reuters Director of Journalism at Oxford University, has dismissed the suggestion that freedom of expression is itself a public good as an ‘absurd idea’. As I point out in the book, what a pity that those who fought for 500 years for a free press did not have access to the Oxford director of journalism’s wisdom: after all, why bother going to the Tower of London or the gallows for an absurdity?

In fact, looking into that history, I was struck that many in the liberal media today have less faith in press freedom than did the Puritans of the seventeenth century. They were the first fighters for a free press, in order to circulate their non-conformist religious views. But their argument was about Man as much as God. The Puritans believed that people had the (God-given) ability to decide what was true or false, and so did not need the king’s censors and licensers to protect them from dangerous ideas. So they demanded press freedom (though not of course for Catholics, whose Papist preaching was viewed as the seventeenth-century equivalent of Nick Griffin’s tweets). By contrast, today’s supposedly liberal ‘press freedom, BUT’ lobby views ‘ordinary people’ as too ‘vulnerable’ to be exposed to offensive or dangerous ideas that could either harm them or provoke them to harm others.

As the battle lines are drawn up for what Hugh Grant predicts will be a ‘war’ over Leveson, I think we need to revive an updated sense of freedom of expression and a free press as the fundamental liberties in a free society, and the key to debating a human-centred view of the future. If it is insisted that we come up with some system of regulating the press, then I favour self-regulation with the emphasis on self rather than regulation. That does not mean the latest proposal for so-called self-regulation from the old Press Complaints Commission, which wants to give an ‘independent’ regulator more powers to police and punish newspapers than are currently enjoyed by the police – who by the way have now arrested more than 80 people and turned phone-hacking and related press offences into the biggest investigation in British criminal history. That is one scandal which needs to be thoroughly exposed.

It has been suggested today that the idea of an unregulated press is ‘other-planet stuff’. Maybe so. But those looking for a new statutory framework for press regulation might like to look at that other world across the Atlantic, where the First Amendment to the US Constitution – inspired by English revolutionaries – makes it illegal to pass any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. The Leveson Inquiry would not have got a look-in over there.

Let’s take a stand for press freedom as an indivisible right, not a gift to be handed down only to those who pass somebody else’s ethics test. And recognise that you do not have to like everything or anything that is published in order to defend the right of the press to be an unwieldy, sometimes scurrilous mess. The fact that some might have abused our freedoms is no excuse to allow the authorities to encroach on those vital rights. We should begin the debate about the media post-Leveson by resisting all attempts to sanitise, disinfect, shrink-wrap or otherwise make our unruly press safe and ‘respectable’.

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. The above is an edited version of a speech given at the Battle of Ideas in London on 21 October 2012.

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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