10 random lies about the press freedom stitch-up

The shabby deal to impose a new press regulator by royal charter has sparked an outpouring of myths, misrepresentation and mendacity.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

It is ironic that the politicians who want to tame the British press claim to be motivated by a concern with the truth. Because the announcement of a cross-party deal to set up a new press regulator by royal charter has been accompanied by more myths, misrepresentations and outright mendacity than the most caricatured tabloid editor could ever dream of getting away with.

The promised showdown between the UK’s political leaders over press regulation turned out to be a phoney war. Whatever differences Tory prime minister David Cameron, his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband might have had were ultimately less important than what they shared: an acceptance of the need to curb the press. The result was, as predicted on spiked last week, a case of ‘stitching up press freedom behind closed doors’, in a late-night meeting between Clegg, Miliband, Cameron’s lackeys and the Hacked Off crusaders which arrived at a messy compromise of a royal charter backed by statute.

These sordid elitist shenanigans have been accompanied by an outpouring of pretentious wibble about an ‘historic’ day for democracy and the press – and a deluge of distorted claims and downright lies. Here are a few choice ones.

1) That not living in Zimbabwe is something to celebrate

Tory supporters of the deal cheered after prime minister Cameron assured us, ‘Let me be clear: this is not by any stretch statutory regulation of the press’. Well, let us be clear: statutory regulation – defined by the Financial Times Lexicon as ‘when a market or industry is controlled by a government organisation… rather than being allowed to control itself’ – was never going to happen. But the fact that we do not have a state-controlled media along the lines of Zimbabwe or North Korea does not mean that we have a free press. There are already scores of statutes impinging on press freedom in the UK, from our execrable libel laws to the 2010 Bribery Act that has helped create what one editor calls an ‘ice age’ of investigative journalism. Now the ‘independent’ new regulator, established by a royal charter backed by statute, will further extend state intervention in the affairs of the press, and cast an even longer official shadow over freedom of expression, with the power to rewrite the journalists’ code, order the press to publish front-page corrections, and impose million-pound fines. All sides agree that the result of their behind-closed-doors shenanigans will create the toughest system of press regulation in the Western world. That is nothing to celebrate.

2) That regulation via a royal charter is a liberal alternative to statute

If anything, a royal charter is potentially even worse news for freedom. The regulatory system will be set up using the Royal Prerogative, the ancient anti-democratic device which gives Her Majesty’s Government, acting in the name of the Crown, the power to do just about anything without consulting parliament, never mind the public. The royal charter will be overseen via the Privy Council, the ancient secretive body that formally advises the monarch on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. In practice, this means that executive decisions are taken by government ministers. And as the Privy Council Office makes clear, there is a strict limit to the ‘independence’ of any body set up by royal charter, which ‘effectively means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body’. For anybody with a passing knowledge of history, this evokes echoes of the despised old system of Crown licensing of the press, enforced by the Privy Council and Star Chamber.

In any case, this royal charter on press regulation will be backed by two changes to the law – one to allow the courts to impose ‘exemplary’ damages on publications that do not sign up to the system, the other to recognise that the charter cannot be altered without a two-thirds majority in parliament. Contrary to the empty assurances offered this week, there is nothing to stop any future government altering or expanding this statutory interference in the press with a simple parliamentary majority.

3) That David Cameron is a ‘freedom fighter’

Prime minister Cameron’s cheerleaders have depicted him as a resolute defender of press freedom, bravely resisting all attempts to impose statutory-backed regulation and achieving the best deal possible. In fact, Cameron is at least as guilty as any other political leaders of creating this crisis of liberty. It was Cameron, after all, who set up the Leveson Inquiry into the entire ‘culture, practice and ethics’ of the British press in July 2011, in response to a wave of panic in high places caused by the phone-hacking scandal, and pledged to implement Leveson’s proposals. That was the key moment in the culture war against the press: as we pointed out at the time, the Leveson Inquiry was from the first a showtrial in which the tabloids were found guilty in advance, an elite inquisition to root out ‘popular’ heresies. In establishing Leveson, with all-party support, Cameron put press freedom on death row.

Cameron’s stance has since been marked more by low opportunism than high principle. The Tory leadership cooked up the idea of a regulator recognised by royal charter in an effort to escape their self-painted corner, after Cameron declared that he wanted to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s plan for taming the press, but balked at Leveson’s proposal for a law ‘underpinning’ the new system. The prime minister might have flounced out of the all-party talks last week, and then absented himself from the late-night meeting where his ministers did the dirty deal with the Labour and Lib Dem leaders. But such PR stunts cannot alter the fact that Cameron, like every other political leader, has been on the wrong side of the lines in the battle to defend press freedom.

4) That Ed Miliband is a ‘hero’

On the other side of parliament, nerdy Labour leader Ed Miliband has been hailed as a ‘hero’ by his small band of groupies in the liberal media, for supposedly taking a brave stand against the press and the mighty Murdoch Empire in particular to fight for press regulation. In fact, like all the supposedly high-minded crusaders for press regulation, Miliband has been motivated by base political self-interest. Does anybody truly believe that the likes of Miliband and Labour MP Tom Watson, Gordon Brown’s former fixer, would have pursued their crusade so zealously if the Murdoch press had remained loyal to Brown’s New Labour government at the last General Election?

In claiming credit for the stitch-up of press freedom, Miliband has demonstrated that Labour and the rump of the left are now not only the most despicably illiberal and anti-free speech force in British politics, but are also proud of that badge of infamy.

5) That ‘breaking with the past’ is always a good thing

Before Monday’s deal was announced, Miliband urged the parties to ‘break with the past’. After Cameron announced the stitch-up, the Labour leader further declared that ‘today we break the pattern of decades and decades, where politicians promised to act on wrongdoings by the press and failed to do so’.

Now, spiked has always been for the future. But there are past traditions well worth preserving – such as the 500-plus years of struggle in Britain to create and defend a press free from state licensing and interference. Miliband’s depiction of the past would turn history on its head, by pretending that the progressive ‘struggle’ has really been to get politicians to rein in press freedom. Those real heroes of the past who went to the Tower and the gallows to oppose such political policing of the press might have seen things differently, but who cares about them?

In fact, in one important aspect the new system threatens an unwelcome return to the past. The threat of ‘exemplary’ damages against publications who refuse to bend the knee to the new publisher amounts to an indirect form of state licensing of the press (last seen in 1694) and taxation of dissident newspapers (last imposed in 1855). That’s progress for you!

6) That being ‘Leveson-compliant’ is the test that must be passed

Throughout the political shenanigans that preceded the top-level deal, all parties insisted that their preferred option was ‘Leveson-compliant’. It was accepted without question that complying with Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals was the ‘ethical’ test that any system for press regulation would have to pass.

Yet the truth is that Leveson is a big part of the problem, not the solution. And the problems do not end with his suggestion of statutory-backed regulation. His report amounts to a 2,000-page judicial order for policing the press via an ‘independent’ regulator stuffed with the Great and Good, the further restricting of investigative journalism (including the jailing of more journalists), and the enforcement of a complainants’ charter that could enable any self-righteous lobby group to object to stories they don’t like. It is a mark of how supine the political and media class has become that so few have been willing to reject the entire ‘Leveson principles’ and take a forthright stand for the principle of freedom of expression.

7) That press regulation is only about curbing Murdoch and Co

Supporters of press regulation insisted again this week that their aim is not to limit free speech, but only to curb the excesses of the Big Media, as best represented by Rupert Murdoch’s empire. But whatever anybody thinks of Murdoch or his newspapers, attempts to curb the freedom of the press can only have serious consequences for us all.

As my book demonstrates, hatred of the ‘popular’ press and the ‘mass’ media has always been a thinly veiled code for expressing an elitist fear and loathing of the populace/masses who consume them. Limiting the freedom of the press is about limiting what the people are allowed to see, read, and even think. The ostensible target might be Big Media, but the real one is the Big Public.

And the current proposals for press regulation reach far beyond the big media monopolies, dragging any print or online publication that carries news or opinion into the regulators’ net. That means spiked, as well as the Sun. Freedom of expression remains indivisible, and we defend it for all or none at all.

8) That victims of press intrusion should have a casting bloc vote

As the Lib Dems and Labour pressed for a tough new regulator over last weekend, the ‘v’ word became their mantra. As Labour leader Miliband put it, ‘Monday is the day that politics has got to do the duty by the victims and has got to stand up for the victims’. On Monday, Cameron hailed the royal charter deal for doing exactly that. The consensus seems to be that victims of phone-hacking and press harassment should effectively be given a casting bloc vote over the form of press regulation.

Yet however much these people are deserving of public sympathy, they are not entitled to exercise any sort of ‘victims’ veto’ over the future of press freedom, a bedrock liberty that is far too important to society as a whole. It is little wonder that the tabloid-bashing lobby talks incessantly about high-profile victims, since their experience provides the only moral case for press regulation. But what about the moral case for the maximum press freedom as serving the greatest public good? Defending a free press does not mean endorsing anything that the newspapers might have done. But it does mean not allowing past victims to be used as emotive human shields by those crusading for a less free press.

9) That Hacked Off has hijacked the post-phone hacking debate

Since the royal charter stitch-up was announced, the anger of many defenders of press freedom has focused on Hacked Off, the pro-regulation lobby group fronted by Hugh Grant. This motley little collection of actors, lawyers, hackademics and failed politicians has certainly played a remarkable role in the press regulation debate. As its own modestly entitled book Everybody’s Hacked Off makes clear, the lobby group instigated the demand for the Leveson Inquiry, set the terms for it to probe not just phone-hacking but the entire ‘culture and ethics’ of the press, set the tone for the public circus through its celebrity witnesses and then penned most of Lord Justice Leveson’s final proposals. Hacked Off also drew up the compromise on statutory underpinning that was accepted this week – and was even present throughout the late-night talks to seal the deal, unlike any representative of the press!

Yet the real question is: how could such an insubstantial outfit exercise such apparent extraordinary influence? How could we have reached the point where Hugh Grant of all people can phone up members of Labour’s shadow cabinet and demand that they ‘toe the line’? Only because, in articulating the demand for regulating the press, Hacked Off has been pushing at the open door of a spineless political class that has abandoned any belief in freedom of expression. That class would rather put its faith in sanctimonious lawyers and celebrities than trust the public. It has not been a hijacking, but a meeting of narrow minds.

So hate Hacked Off if you must. But let’s not try to scapegoat it for the capitulation of the political class. Indeed, as Brendan O’Neill points out elsewhere on spiked, for some, attacking the excesses of Grant and Co has become a way of disguising their own complicity in the undermining of a free press. Those of us who defend press freedom often advise others not to shoot the messenger. We should also take our own advice.

10) That the press is too free and needs a tough new regulator at all

This is the Big Lie, the major myth that has been at the heart of the entire discussion around the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry. Whatever their differences over procedures, all sides of politics – and many in the media – have effectively accepted that the British press has been too free to run wild and so must be reined in and tamed.

It would be far truer to say, however, that the press is already neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator is imposed to chastise it further. There might be many problems with the British media. None of them is going to be solved by more regulations and restrictions on freedom that can only reinforce an atmosphere of conformism and create a more sanitised press.

There is still time to raise the banner for greater press freedom, as the messy details of the new deal are thrashed out and the newspaper publishers decide what their attitude should be. For too long this discussion has been monopolised by the cliques that stitched up press freedom this week. As ever, the one group who has no say in deciding what sort of press is in the ‘public interest’ is the public itself.

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.

Topics Free Speech


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