24 hours to save the press
Leveson is driven by a fear and loathing of the public. You can fight it.
It took centuries to fight for a free press – now we have 24 hours to save it. Tomorrow sees the end of the government consultation on the next steps of the Leveson Inquiry, the judge-led inquisition that used the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World as a pretext for a purge of the popular press. The government is asking us two questions. First, should Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act be implemented? And second, should the government commence with Leveson 2, another m’lud-led inquiry, this time focusing on the relationship between the police and the press?
As part of the #FreeThePress campaign, spiked is urging the British public to say an emphatic NO to both (respond to the consultation here). Section 40 would force publications to sign up with a state-backed regulator or else be forced to pay the legal costs of anyone who brings a civil case against them, whether they win or lose. It’s an invitation for anyone with an axe to grind to launch frivolous law suits to bankrupt papers they dislike. To rub salt in the wound, the only regulator approved by the Press Regulation Panel – set up by Royal Charter after Leveson 1 – is Impress, which is funded by tabloid hater Max Mosley.
Then there’s Leveson 2. At the original inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson probed the relationship between the press and the authorities, calling for an end to off-the-record briefings. As Mick Hume wrote on spiked last week, Leveson 2 would take us further down the road to a secret state, in which this move towards ‘transparency’ would result in officials keeping schtum and the public being left in the dark. What’s more, it would effectively be a rerun of the five-year-long police witch-hunt against tabloid journalists – investigations into phone-hacking, computer hacking and paying public officials for information – which ended in the acquittal of all but a handful of the defendants.
Section 40 would mark the end of an independent press in Britain. For the first time in over 300 years newspapers would be, in effect, licensed by a state-backed body – one staffed by people who openly hate the tabloids’ guts. And Leveson 2 would severely limit what the press could do with what little ‘freedom’ it had left. For all the handwringing about the decline of proper ‘public interest’ journalism, papers would become ever more wary of shining a light on those in power for fear of having their collar felt or falling foul of an ethics committee. Listicles and cat videos, here we come.
Of course, it was precisely the ‘speak truth to power’ stories that Leveson insisted would be untouched. At the outset of the inquiry, Leveson’s right-hand-man Robert Jay QC cited the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses investigation and (unsurprisingly) the Guardian’s scoop about phone-hacking at the News of the World as two examples of journalism he had no interest in meddling with. But even the respectable broadsheets would be effected by the government’s plans. At present, neither the Telegraph nor the Guardian has signed up to Impress (the thoroughly pro-Leveson Guardian remains self-regulating).
But it was never really about them. From the beginning, Leveson was driven by fear and loathing of the tabloids, by an elite desire to sanitise the ‘gutter press’ for the good of the gutter people who read it. This is why criminal wrongdoing at the News of the World so quickly morphed into a judge-led inquiry on the entire ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the press. It was a public flogging of the tabloids – with lobbyists holding forth on everything from celebrity ‘tittle tattle’ to Page 3 – intended as moral cover to push for state-backed regulation and a quieter, conformist press.
This was driven not just by a disdain for the sexposé-filled redtops but for the public who buy them. For decades, the tabloids have been blamed for everything from consigning the Labour Party to electoral oblivion to spreading misogyny and xenophobia. Underpinning it all is a fear and loathing of working-class readers, who, it is assumed, take their political cues from Becki from Essex and are one Katie Hopkins column away from gunning down migrants. It’s no surprise that some Impress staffers support ‘Stop Funding Hate’, a campaign to defund the ‘hateful’ tabloids – the press-regulation lobby was always shot-through with anti-tabloid snobbery.
Censorship, as Thomas Paine put it, is always more ‘a sentence on the public [than] the author’. And throughout history, shackling and licensing the press was justified in the name of protecting the public from allegedly nefarious influences. Henry VIII clamped down on the press in 1529 to quell the influence of heretical ideas. In the 1800s, the state tried to price the vote-demanding paupers out of the market by heavily taxing publications. And even after the people triumphed over state licensing and punitive taxes, the snobbery never died. The rise of mass literacy at the turn of the century only incurred more wrath from the upper orders.
As John Carey notes in The Intellectuals and the Masses, the popular press was for the early 20th-century elite a symbol of the vulgarity and fecklessness of the public. Author George Gissing saw mass-circulation newspapers as ‘the very voice of all that is worst in our civilisation’. A more theatrical Friedrich Nietzsche said the brutish public ‘vomit their bile, and call it a newspaper’. You don’t need to look far today to find people making their own bile-spitting broadsides against the popular press. According to one Impress committee member, the Daily Mail is ‘the worst aspect of contemporary British culture’. He’s wondered out loud on Twitter about banning it.
That the Leveson crusade against the tabloids has caught ‘respectable’ papers in the crossfire should not surprise us. As Thomas Jefferson put it, press freedom ‘cannot be limited without being lost’. Free expression is for all or none at all. But with 24 hours before the consultation ends, it’s worth remembering what drove this in the first place: a disdain for the public masquerading as a concern about the grubby tactics of the tabloids. So respond to the consultation now and say No to Section 40 and Leveson 2. Press regulation holds you in contempt. Reject it. You have until 5pm tomorrow.
Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_