What’s left of press freedom?

The founder of Hacked Off’s book reveals how radical lobbyists wrote the illiberal script for the Leveson Inquiry.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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After the publication of his voluminous report demanding a new press regulator backed by law, many wondered how Lord Justice Leveson managed to churn out 2,000 pages and almost a million words in such a relatively short time. A rather shorter book – Everybody’s Hacked Off: Why We Don’t Have the Press We Deserve and What To Do About It, by Brian Cathcart – provides at least part of the answer. Like many a famous author whose name appears on the cover these days, it appears that Leveson had the help of a ghost writer. In his case, it was Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University and co-founder of the tabloid-bashing Hacked Off campaign.

Cathcart’s book makes clear that Hacked Off was not only instrumental in getting the Lib-Con coalition government to call the inquiry, but it also effectively wrote the script for the entire year-long hearings and laid out the demands that formed the basis of Leveson’s conclusions. How did such a small elite lobby group come to have such a say in the future of press freedom?

Despite the ‘everybody’ in Cathcart’s title, it was certainly not by mobilising any sort of mass movement demanding change. The public has only ever featured as numbers in opinion polls and online petitions. As Hugh Grant, the voiceover artist who has most often read out Cathcart’s script, boasts in his introduction to Everybody’s Hacked Off, the group amounted to ‘three balanced and principled academics, a few clever lawyers, one passionate, hyper-active ex-Lib Dem MP, two horrified journalists, one cross film actor [Grant] and one livid comedian [Steve Coogan]’.

Cathcart and Grant want to portray Hacked Off as a noble little David fighting the ‘momentous’ Goliath-like power of the press barons and their political stooges. If so, this was a fight in which Goliath hit himself over the head. Through the past 18 months, Hacked Off and its allies have been able to take advantage of the disarray and loss of authority of the entire political and media class.

In July 2011, the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002. The resulting wave of outrage caused panic in high places, leading to the closure of the NotW. Cathcart describes how his little group, then effectively a two-man band, took advantage of this disarray by demanding – and getting – audiences with all the political-party leaders, taking the Dowler family with them. Hacked Off demanded, and got, a public inquiry. What is more, he says, they demanded that the inquiry should look into not just the phone-hacking scandal, but the entire ‘culture, ethics and practices of the press’. That was the exact brief that prime minister David Cameron gave Lord Justice Leveson when he appointed the judge to head the inquiry.

Once Leveson began his public hearings, the Hacked Off lobby was allowed to set the tone from the very start, with the first witnesses called being their high-profile and celebrity supporters such as Grant and Coogan, to denounce the crimes of the tabloids they accused of creating a ‘culture of pure evil’. At the end of all this, Leveson produced a report based on the Hacked Off version of events and proposals centred on all of the demands listed in Cathcart’s book, for a new regulator underpinned by the law with the ‘clout’ to police and punish the press. The only real difference is that Cathcart wants a statute to ‘compel’ newspapers to sign up to the new system – an explicit form of state licensing of the press unseen in Britain for more than 300 years. Leveson instead proposed a statutory-backed regulator that could punish financially those that failed to submit – a sort of informal system of licensing by the back door. But his entire report was infused with the spirit of Hacked Off’s demands.

The remarkable rise of Hacked Off’s three-academics-and-an-actor outfit is not due to some sort of ‘left-wing conspiracy’; such claims should be treated just as sceptically as the conspiracy theories about how Rupert Murdoch really runs Britain. The key thing was not a conspiracy, but a collapse – the collapse of mainstream support for defending press freedom. Hacked Off was able to exploit the elite’s disarray, and to provide the language in which the UK’s political and media class could express its alienation from its own formal tradition of a free press.

But the disproportionate influence of the anti-tabloid crusaders has gone further still. Much of their argument has also been accepted by the opposition. In his introduction, Grant predicts a ‘war’ over Leveson’s report. Yet as we have argued on spiked, the battle over whether a tough new regulator should be underpinned by law is partly a phoney war. Many on the old ‘free press’ side have already retreated, if not actually crossed over to the other side. Thus the newspaper industry’s ‘alternative’ proposals for a new regulator accept the central myth of the post-phone hacking debate: that the press has been too free to run wild and needs reining in. Voices arguing that the press is already far too constrained by law and custom have been few. The past year suggests that the battle for real press freedom in Britain is in danger of being lost before it really begins.

Perhaps the worst thing about this is the notion that it is a success for the ‘left’ in UK politics. Cathcart is a liberal-left journalist who worked for the Independent and the New Statesman, the Labour house journal, before going into academia and becoming a champion of press regulation. Other journalists-turned-journalism-academics have followed a similar path from poacher to gamekeeper. Among them is John Lloyd, a former Communist and New Statesman editor who is now director of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. In his contribution to the post-hacking debate, Lloyd dismissed as ‘absurd’ the statement in the old editors’ code that ‘There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself’. I observed in my book, There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press, that it was shame those who fought for press freedom in the past could not have benefited from the director of journalism’s wisdom, since they surely would not have gone to the Tower or the gallows in defence of an ‘absurdity’. Reviewing my book, Lloyd insisted that he stood by his earlier point, because the Rwandan genocide showed how the media could be used for dangerous ends. Ah yes, if only those Africans had had the genteel Lord Justice Leveson to sort everything out.

Historically, of course, it was those who sought radical and democratic change in Britain who fought to free the press from any form of licensing, taxation or interference by the state. In the modern era, however, the rump of those who still think of themselves as on the left are defined by their disastrous attachment to the state and detachment from demos, the people. It is all very well for Cathcart to scoff that his proposals for statute-backed regulation do not mean Zimbabwe-style state control of the media. Of course they don’t. But the dangers of state intervention in the press are not restricted to the ‘Orwellian nightmare’ of politicians dictating to newspapers.

The Leveson Inquiry itself was an act of state interference unprecedented in scope and impact in the modern age, which has already had a serious chilling effect on the press. One libel lawyer I debated recently said he wished the inquiry could have gone on another year, because it had made the press far more compliant and willing to settle. The proposals for unelected officials, arbitrators and judges to sit in judgement on the media are if anything even worse than elected politicians doing so.

The likes of Cathcart and Hacked Off, however, are so attached to the state as the agent of progress that they can see nothing wrong with a judge proposing how far to turn the clock back on press freedom. For Cathcart, Lord Justice Leveson was ‘very much the honest seeker after truth’, almost an apostolic figure. He even cites supportively the evidence of the top Metropolitan cop Sue Akers, who baldly told the inquiry that there had been a ‘culture’ of criminality at the Sun – when many journalists had been arrested but nobody had been convicted – and that the stories the tabloids had acquired through illegal methods were not of ‘genuine public interest’. The idea of a senior police officer holding forth on what sort of stories the press should publish is not one we might normally associate with a healthy democracy. Yet Cathcart happily calls Akers as a witness for the prosecution of the press.

Perhaps the most bizarre argument in this respect is Cathcart’s claim that the role of Shami Chakrabarti, head of the civil-rights group Liberty, on Leveson’s panel of experts proves that the inquiry posed no threat to freedom of expression. What Chakrabarti’s role really demonstrated, of course, was that the idea of liberty has become so degraded on the liberal-left that she could pose as a freedom fighter while sitting on the modern version of the Crown’s Star Chamber in judgement of press freedom.

For this book, the problem is not that the state might dominate the media, but that we live under a ‘media-run state’. The idiotic radical conspiracism of this I-blame-the-meejah line has become all-too familiar in almost every political debate. Of course the press is powerful, but largely by default. Its heightened influence in political life is a side effect of the decline of political parties and the loss of democratic authority. The media remains a reflection of the wider society it reports and helps to shape. Yet the one-eyed left sees the tabloids as the cause of just about all our ills. Cathcart even seems to imagine that the Tory government’s 1989 warning that the popular press was drinking in the ‘last chance saloon’ was a response to the Sun’s outrageous reporting of the Hillsborough disaster, entirely ignoring the Tories’ central role in bringing about that tragedy and covering it up.

All of these arguments are presented as a radical case against a press that is said to be only interested in ‘corporate profit’. Are Hacked Off and their allies pursuing an anti-capitalism agenda, then? Hardly. Behind this leftish language lies an attack on the masses who are allegedly mug enough to line the pockets of the likes of Rupert Murdoch. As ever through history, the vitriol aimed at the popular press is essentially a coded expression of fear and loathing for the populace.

Cathcart’s discussion of the ‘public interest’ rather gives the game away here. What does this oft-cited concept mean? ‘Well’, says Cathcart, ‘to start with it is obviously not the same thing as what interests the public…. That would legitimise all kinds of gratuitous cruelty and dishonesty, reviving the morality that permitted bear-baiting and public executions’. There we have the pro-regulation left’s real view of the people: that you cannot let the ‘cruel’ public see and hear whatever they are interested in, or they will all be demanding hangings in the street. Since the public apparently does not know what is good for it, the ‘public interest’ must therefore be defined by experts, judges – and journalism professors.

Much of Cathcart’s book is really a list of all the well-rehearsed evidence from high-profile victims of press intrusion and harassment that was heard at the Leveson Inquiry. He rightly points out that Cameron has got himself into a corner, from which he is now trying to escape, by promising to satisfy the victims’ demands. The real problem however is that neither the prime minister nor anybody else should ever have implied that there could be some sort of victims’ veto over the future of a supposedly free press. People like the Dowlers and Madeleine McCann’s parents deserve much sympathy over what was done to them. But the fact that some might sometimes abuse the freedom of the press cannot be an excuse for allowing others to infringe that vital freedom for all. Or to use emotive cases as human shields for a crusade to purge the press that I call ‘ethical cleansing’.

For Cathcart, however, as for the inquiry he helped shape, there ought to be a sharp divide between the ‘ethical’ media – largely the Guardian and the BBC – and the rest. He talks dismissively of the ‘collective loss of self-control’ among the tabloids in reporting controversial stories. It is certainly true that the News of the World got carried away with its self-righteous crusades. But then, so did the Guardian in all the mistaken claims about the tabloids it made during the phone-hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry, and so did the BBC’s Newsnight in its false claims about a ‘top Tory paedophile’. Any media outlet can suffer a loss of self-control.

The point remains, however, that a free press and freedom of expression are indivisible rights that belong to all or none at all. Defending that principle does not mean endorsing everything or anything that the press does. But it does mean accepting the freedom of others to publish what you don’t want to read, whether your personal tastes deem it ‘ethical’ or not. Freedom is always a messy business. Nobody has to pass a test set by Lord Justice Leveson or Hacked Off to qualify for the right to free speech.

There are many problems with the British press, from the monopoly control of the market to the conformism of most products in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ and the self-serving narcissism of too much journalism today. None of them, however, is going to be solved by any of the proposals for more regulation and control. Those of us concerned about the future of the press, whether in print or, like spiked, online (where the future surely lies) should be fighting for more freedom, not arguing over how best to tame and sanitise public debate.

When The Sunday Times interviewed me about the dangers of the inquiry, Cathcart went on Twitter to denounce it as ‘shameless anti-Leveson propaganda’. I confess to being entirely shameless about it. Anybody with an ounce of feeling for press freedom should have been anti-Leveson from the start. The shame is that so many who claim to support a free press ‘but…’ signed up to the inquiry/inquisition.

In his introduction, Hugh Grant lashes out at those of us who refuse to demand more regulation of the criminal press – ‘or worse,’ he says, ‘disguise your fear of saying something with pious and convenient posturing about free speech, as if you owned the concept’. I fear, Hugh, only that you have slightly misunderstood the concept of free speech. Nobody owns it. The point about a free press is that it is free; which means it might have to comply with the law, but sadly it does not have to comply with what you, I or anybody else might wish it to be, however hacked off that might make lawyers, actors, or hackademics.

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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