An elitist inquisition, not a liberal conspiracy
The row over the Daily Mail’s investigation into a key Leveson adviser masks some broader truths about this inquiry into press ethics.
The Daily Mail has caused a considerable stir in media land by publishing an 11-page ‘Special Investigation’ which it said raised ‘disturbing questions’ about an influential figure in the Leveson Inquiry into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the UK press. Sir David Bell is the senior assessor on the inquiry’s panel of experts advising Lord Justice Leveson. The Mail claimed to have exposed ‘an incestuous network of political, business and financial links between Sir David, ex-chairman of the Financial Times, and individuals and organisations appearing before the inquiry to demand statutory press regulation’. The thrust of the allegations was that ‘a narrow and powerful section of the liberal establishment’ was influencing the inquiry to pursue its long-held ambition of curbing the press.
Bell was revealed as a founder of the Media Standards Trust, a key proponent of statutory regulation at the inquiry, which in turn helped to launch Hacked Off, the high-profile tabloid-bashing lobby fronted by celebrities such as Hugh Grant, whose supporters gave much of the most damning evidence about phone-hacking and other alleged press crimes to Leveson. The Mail also reported that Bell was a co-founder of Common Purpose, a leadership training group with fingers in many influential pies, described as ‘the left’s answer to the Old Boys’ network’. He is also – to the obvious glee of the Mail – a trustee of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the self-righteous body which told Leveson it would set a ‘gold standard’ for ethical journalism, but has now been reduced to scrap-metal status by its role in BBC Newsnight’s disastrous report falsely implicating Lord McAlpine in child abuse. There was much else in the Mail’s report about links between other key Leveson players and bodies such as Common Purpose or the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom.
This report was taken up with some relish elsewhere in the tabloid press, the Sun splashing a spread headlined ‘The leftie plotters with one Common Purpose – to gag the press’. Unsurprisingly, it also caused some outrage among those campaigners, journalism academics and liberal journalists who are pushing for Leveson to propose tougher regulation of the press. One called it ‘a classic example of conspiracist innuendo… a farrago of distortion with added vilification’. Another scoffed that the Mail had changed its long-running conspiracist tune: ‘It’s an EU conspiracy! No, it’s a New Labour conspiracy!’ Another sneered at the Mail’s apparent attempt to portray Bell and the BIJ ‘as part of a Masonic-style, left-wing, entryist conspiracy to destroy the British press’. And so on.
There appears to be a remarkable irony failure in evidence here. Liberal columnists and professors of journalism now protest that the Mail is portraying Bell as a ‘shadowy figure who, through his chairmanships and trusteeships of various charitable bodies, is exerting undue and unaccountable power’ at the heart of a leftie ‘secret network’. Yet for years, Leveson’s liberal cheerleaders and supporters of strict press regulation have claimed that there is a right-wing conspiracy manipulating British public life, centred on ‘shadowy’ media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
These allegations often go considerably further than ‘conspiracist innuendo’. For example, in his bizarre book about the phone-hacking scandal, Dial M for Murdoch, Labour MP Tom Watson – the witchfinder general of British politics – claimed that Murdoch and his network of media lieutenants not only exercised ‘a poisonous, secretive influence on public life’ but actually ‘orchestrated public life from the shadows’ with ‘a corrupt grip on our national institutions’, manipulating ‘prime ministers, ministers, parliament, the police and the justice system’ and spinning ‘an invisible web of connections and corruption’.
This sort of paranoid Murdochphobic babbling has long been taken as good intellectual coin in British left circles, and had an extensive hearing at the Leveson Inquiry. Yet the same figures who have peddled it are now up in arms about the Mail identifying an alternative powerful network among their allies. Those who live by the conspiracy theory can perish by it, too.
In fact there is no need to indulge in ‘conspiracist innuendo’ about individuals to see the real problems with the Leveson Inquiry. I know little and care less about the personal links between Sir David Bell and others. As his defenders point out, all of Bell’s positions of influence are publicly acknowledged. And there is nothing wrong with cooperating in pursuit of shared political aims. Regular readers may know that even spiked has sometimes been accused of being part of a ‘shadowy network’ by those who dislike its ideas.
However, there are a couple of broader truths underpinning the Mail’s investigation which do point to fundamental dangers posed by the Leveson Inquiry. First, it is unquestionably on an elitist mission to tame the ‘popular’ press. That is why my book, There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press…, calls the inquiry an inquisition: ‘The goal of Leveson’s well-mannered legal inquisitors has been much the same as their zealous religious forebears: to root our heretical views. In this case, to purge the popular press of the heresies which those in high places find distasteful and offensive. Behind the high-minded talk of “ethics”, this was an exercise in “ethical” cleansing, a disinfecting of the lower orders of the press. The mission of the inquisition was not censorship or book-burning, but to redefine press freedom by instilling an ethos of conformism across the media.’
The status of Bell as senior adviser to Leveson, with his links to the likes of the Media Standards Trust, is not the cause of the problem. It is, however, symbolic of whose ‘ethics’ the inquiry is interested in upholding. Leveson’s expert panel was dominated by media grandees and a former police chief, with no voice at all for the much-maligned tabloid press. That reflects the political direction of the inquiry which, from the first, has been at pains to draw a line between the respectable ‘ethical’ press and the ‘popular’ rabble that is read and enjoyed by the great unwashed.
The second broader truth behind the Mail’s report is that the inquiry represents the new form of elitism in British public life: that of the allegedly liberal-left cultural elite. One of the most remarkable – and remarkably dangerous – things about the entire Leveson circus has been the extent to which it is now accepted that to be liberal or left-wing means to be pro-statutory regulation and curtailing the freedom of the press. Those who identify themselves as liberal minded and civil liberties campaigners have been to the forefront in demanding tougher press regulation. Things have reached the point where Hugh Grant feels he has to point out that he is not a leftie, even though he supports statutory regulation.
In this regard, an even more noteworthy member of Leveson’s panel than Bell is arguably Shami Chakrabarti, the head of the leading civil-rights lobby, Liberty, and the queen of Britain’s civic society, chosen to carry the Olympic flag at this summer’s London 2012 opening ceremony alongside Doreen Lawrence. Sitting alongside Lord Justice Leveson at the inquiry, as part of the ‘jury’ handpicked to pass judgement on the press, she has looked less like a freedom fighter than a member of the Crown’s Star Chamber. Yet this is now apparently taken as normal.
The remarkable extent to which those calling themselves liberal or left-wing have effectively deserted the cause of press freedom and gone over to the side of the inquisitors was one of the main reasons why spiked launched its Counter-Leveson Inquiry, and why I wrote my book. We want to re-establish the historic role of the left and those seeking change as the most ardent supporters of freedom of expression and a free press, based on our belief in the ability of humanity to decide for itself and make its own history.
As we await the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the future of press regulation, the battlelines are being drawn. There is no need to indulge in ‘conspiracist innuendo’, or to worry about being viewed as on the same side as the Daily Mail, in order to see the need to take an uncompromising stand against the illiberal liberal elite and its crusade to sanitise the press.
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