Hugh Grant: hero of the fight for press freedom?
His boasts confirm freedom is being redefined as liberty-on-licence.
Hugh Grant has played some ridiculous parts and spoken some bad lines in his acting career. But surely none can top his performance of the past week. Grant has attempted to cast himself, the press-bashing Hacked Off lobby he fronts and Lord Justice Leveson as the people ‘who really care for freedom of expression in this country’, and claimed credit for a ‘victory for press freedom’ over police use of anti-terror laws to hack into journalists’ phone records. In the words of one of the tabloid hacks whose freedom Grant, Leveson and Co have spent years trying to curb: ‘You could not make it up.’
Protests over the scandal of police using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) secretly to hack into journalists’ phone records, in order to hunt down confidential sources and whistleblowers, have been escalating for months. The government has now announced that it will, after all, introduce ‘interim measures’ to put a stop to this practice before the General Election in May. Under the new rules police will have to follow procedures set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), go to court and obtain the permission of a judge before accessing journalists’ records. Until now they have been able to sidestep judicial oversight by using RIPA, which allows them to hack phone records without informing the journalist, on the ‘independent’ authority of… a police superintendent.
Grant has been all over his favoured media outlets – BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian – to claim credit for this climbdown by Conservative government ministers. He says the ‘victory’ over RIPA was won by three groups: ‘Working journalists, marshalled by the trade magazine, Press Gazette; some politicians, particularly Lib Dems, who were quick to see something had to be done; and third, Hacked Off, on whose board I sit.’ The people who had done nothing, meanwhile, were ‘the editors and proprietors of our biggest national newspaper companies’, despite all their ‘public posturing… about press freedom’. The whole episode, concluded Grant, showed why the press should all sign up to Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for state-backed regulation, which offered ‘a British equivalent of the US First Amendment, designed to uphold press freedom’.
To many, Grant’s gall appeared as risible as his earlier claims that Hacked Off’s campaign to curb the press is about protecting ‘ordinary people’, not celebrities. As the industry was quick to point out, newspapers and their editors had, of course, been prominent in the protests against the police use of RIPA to hunt down sources – notably two of Hacked Off’s least-favourite tabloids, the Sun and the Mail on Sunday, the most high-profile victims of hacking by the secret police. (Declaration of interest: Sun editor David Dinsmore commissioned me to write a column and a two-page feature on the threat to press freedom posed by ‘Hack the RIPA’. But don’t worry, Hugh, I claim no credit for the outcome.)
Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, whose excellent ‘Save Our Sources’ campaign, launched back in September 2014, was the main player in the protests, politely observed that, while Hacked Off ‘deserves credit for drafting the Lib Dem legal amendment which helped bounce the government into action’, Grant was wrong to try to play down the role of the press: ‘The whole journalism industry has played its part in a rare show of unanimity. If journalists had let this go and allowed the police to continue to view our phone records in order to identify confidential sources, we might as well have given up on the idea of press freedom in the UK.’
Quite so. But the problems with Hugh Grant’s version of events, and Hacked Off’s role in reshaping press law, go much further than denying credit to others. They show how the very idea of press freedom in the UK is being redefined to mean liberty-on-licence, to be handed down to those deemed worthy by governments and judges on the advice of self-righteous crusaders.
Lest we forget who we are dealing with: the remarkably influential Hacked Off lobby was formed by a group of ‘hackademics’ – journalists-turned-journalism academics, or poachers-turned-gamekeepers – as the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World unfolded in 2011. Its aim has been to secure a new system of state-backed regulation to curb Britain’s unruly tabloid press and sanitise its output.
To that end Hacked Off played a central role in getting the Lib Dem coalition government to set up an inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson; defined the terms of the inquiry, so that it was not about hacking but the entire ‘culture, ethics and practices’ of the UK press; and then ghost-wrote most of Leveson’s key proposals for a tough new system to police the press, published at the end of 2012. (Hacked Off’s one disappointment was that the good Lord Justice balked at their proposal for newspaper membership of the new statutory regulator to be made compulsory – an explicit form of state licensing of the press.)
In 2013, Hacked Off held a late-night meeting with leaders of all the main political parties, at which they stitched up a deal to impose a new regulator underpinned by law, via the anti-democratic device of a Royal Charter – Britain’s first state-backed system of press regulation since 1695. As yet, no newspaper publisher has agreed to bend the knee to it, a constant cause of outrage for Grant and Co.
Hacked Off, Lord Justice Leveson and the political elites they influence essentially view press freedom as a privilege, not a right, to be granted like charity to those deemed deserving cases. They want freedom for the sort of media of which they approve – supposedly high-minded, worthy outlets such as the Guardian and the BBC – but not for the scurrilous, dirt-digging tabloid or popular press (it’s always a giveaway for the snobs’ agenda when being ‘popular’ is treated as a bad thing). Thus Hacked Off and the Lib Dems took umbrage at the police use of RIPA because it was being used not just to punish tabloid scandal-mongering, but to pursue the sort of ‘public-interest whistleblowers’ of whom they are supposed to approve.
While Press Gazette and the press were publicly campaigning against the secret police hackers, what did Hacked Off do? According to Hugh Grant’s own boasts, they ‘researched the issue, took specialist advice, drafted amendments in both houses, briefed MPs and peers’. In other words, they treated the issue of press freedom and its limits as an internal matter for the political class, to be defined not through public debate but behind-closed-doors briefings of MPs and lords and lawyerly paper-shuffling in the Palace of Westminster. They effectively treated these matters as none of the business of the press, never mind the public.
Little wonder, perhaps, that we are left with a ‘victory’ for press freedom that is strictly limited in scope. The government has promised to use a ‘statutory instrument’ to impose new rules that will oblige the police to seek judicial permission to access journalists’ phone records. It is left entirely up to the government ministers and judges to decide how free the press should be from police surveillance.
But then, that is the perverse view of a ‘free’ press that has defined the entire discussion of regulation in recent years. It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the ‘Leveson principles’ which are endorsed not just by Hacked Off but all the political parties.
For instance, Lord Justice Leveson’s report proposed that police whistleblowers should no longer contact the media with their stories, but should go to a senior officer or the IPCC in confidence. In which case there would have been no need for the Metropolitan Police to hack into the Sun’s phone records to track down and punish the ‘Plebgate’ whistleblowers.
Leveson also wanted more legal restrictions on investigative reporting. He suggested that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act – now hailed as the liberal alternative to RIPA – should be amended to give less protection to journalists’ confidential sources of information. The Lord Justice proposed removing the ‘journalistic exemption’ for material that has been ‘stolen’ – which would mean most leaked information – and letting the police or even the Financial Services Authority go into newspaper offices and seize it, without special court orders.
As for Grant’s suggestion that Leveson offers ‘a British equivalent of the US First Amendment, designed to uphold press freedom’… compare and contrast. Leveson proposed, in his usual wordy style, a legal system under which it would be lawful to interfere with the media ‘insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society’, thus leaving the door wide open for further state intervention. By contrast, the short and sweet First Amendment to the US Constitution states that it is illegal for the US Congress to pass any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’. In other words, it is never ‘legitimate’ or ‘necessary in a democratic society’. Even the First Amendment arguably still leaves a few judges with too much sway in defining the limits of free speech. But if Lord Justice Leveson’s almost-one-million-word report had simply echoed those few words, we would be far better off now.
It was the Leveson Inquiry, a showtrial in which the tabloids were found guilty before proceedings began, that gave the green light for the state to launch its war on the press, not only secretly hacking phone records but also rounding up 63 tabloid journalists, some of whom are still facing the threat of legal action years later. Hacked Off and all of the alleged liberals worshipped at the feet of Lord Justice Leveson, and demanded that the legal authorities take firm action against that ‘different breed’ known as tabloid journalists. Their recent protests are simply that the police have taken up their invitation with too much gusto by secretly hacking in search of sources.
Time we went back to first principles. Press freedom is an indivisible liberty that we defend for all or none at all. You cannot pick and choose which bits of the media you want to be ‘free’. No agency of the state, from the police to parliament, the courts to a judge-led inquiry, can be trusted to protect the freedom of the expression and of the press that is the lifeblood of a civilised society. In practice the state will ‘support’ a free press in the same way that a rope supports a hanging man.
As Hugh Grant, Hacked Off and the Lib Dems indulge in mutual backslapping about their triumph for liberty-on-licence, the real fight remains to free the UK press in all its forms from those who would keep it under the regulator’s thumb. We do not need the likes of Grant to tell us that there are problems with the ownership and editorial direction of the media. Nor should we have any illusions in the newspaper industry’s current alternative to the Royal Charter, IPSO, which I have suggested should stand for the Independent Press Sanitisation Outfit. But the problem is never that the press is ‘too free’ of supervision. There is always one thing worse than a free press, and that is its opposite.