James Atkins gives his verdict on Leveson and the impact it will have on our media, and its freedom to report as it sees appropriate.
The whole Leveson debate shows how depressingly low our horizons have sunk when it comes to liberty. Far from debating whether the press should be regulated; the debate has instead focused on how the press should be regulated, whether with statutory regulation, ‘a dab of statute’ or merely with a Royal Charter. Those of us defending press freedom have been accused of letting down the ‘victims’ or smeared as ‘Murdoch stooges’.
Even those who fear that these ‘reforms’ might be somewhat rushed, badly-drafted or lack proper scrutiny; or worry at the fact that Hugh Grant has somehow managed to single-handedly hijack the legislative programme of an elected government and turn the Leader of the Opposition into his personal puppet, have also been brushed aside and ignored.
These legitimate fears don’t even seem to have been acknowledged by Hacked Off campaigners and their allies. Miliband’s recommendation to fully implement Leveson, before he had even read the report, shows just how determined proponents of press regulation are to force this through. Whether it was Lord Justice Leveson slapping down Michael Gove about not needing any lessons in freedom of speech or Polly Toynbee tweeting about how we must distinguish the ‘enemy’ (the Murdoch and Dacre tabloids) from our ‘friends’ (the nice Guardian and Financial Times), this whole charade has been a one-way street from beginning to end. This state licensing of the press isn’t about the victims. It’s not about Milly Dowler or Madeline McCann. This is revenge, pure and simple. About giving a bloody nose to papers that gave politicians a hard time. About purging the papers of anything perceived as tasteless by self-appointed ‘quality’ journalists. And by leaving us with a weaker press, a conformist and sanitised one, this shameful episode diminishes us all.
The Royal Charter implements a system of ‘independent self-regulation’, a hilarious oxymoron at that, for if regulation of the press is independent of the press, it clearly isn’t self-regulation. The panel who decides who should sit on this ‘independent self-regulatory body’ would ‘contain a substantial majority of members who are demonstrably independent of the press’. That is, the press would be overseen by outsiders. Balance and objectivity is to be defined by technocrats. The one group with no say in deciding what sort of press is in the ‘public interest’ is the public itself.
Firstly, membership of his new body is not voluntary. The ‘incentive’ to encourage publishers to join is that non-signatories are liable to ‘exemplary’ damages in court. This ‘incentive’ isn’t a small carrot – instead it’s a whopping great stick. Those who refuse to join would be bankrupted, and sent to jail if they refuse to pay. With enshrined fines weighing heavily on editorial decisions, where we once talked about a ‘free press’, we must instead talk about a ‘largely free press’.
Secondly, the ‘dab of statute’ which requires a two-thirds majority to amend the Royal Charter can itself be amended by a simple majority, and by its very nature grants politicians inappropriate powers over the press. And now the principle that Parliament can legislate the press has been established, it is much easier for future Parliamentarians to enact more draconian regulations. Amending an existing law is much easier than enacting a new one – the Rubicon has been crossed; the precedent set.
Thirdly, whatever the assurances of politicians, this will undoubtedly curtail legitimate journalism, most notably investigative journalism. For example, it’s difficult to see how The Daily Mail’s investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which exposed institutional police racism, would have prevailed today. Or whether the News of the World’s enquiry into the abuse of Iraqi civilians in British custody, The Daily Telegraph’s report into MPs expenses, or more ironically, The Guardian’s investigation into the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone would have all seen the light of day.
Far from protecting victims, this Charter would create them. It would protect the NHS hospitals that left patients lying in their own urine; it would protect the multinational pharmaceutical firms whose products left deformed foetuses and anguished mothers. But if it upsets Paul Dacre, what could be wrong? So-called ‘liberals’ are trashing the very liberties that they were elected to defend. But if Kelvin MacKenzie complains, surely it’s all right? In response to protests, oppressive regimes will be able to claim, “But we’re only following the British example”, as they clamp down on their hapless citizens. But if it hurts the Barclay brothers, then what’s not to like?
There are indeed many problems with the British press. But none of them will be solved by restricting the right to publish. The phone-hacking scandal was a criminal issue and the people involved are being prosecuted. This should not be used as an excuse to rein in the media. It may well be true that the power of the media moguls is too great. But Murdoch and Dacre are tired old men from a declining industry who will not be with us for much longer. The elephant in the room is the internet: this is a twentieth century solution to a twenty-first century problem. The horse has long bolted.
To use the ominous wording of the Royal Charter, we are all ‘significant news publishers’. Every adult with a smartphone in their pocket or internet connection at their desk is a journalist. It is not only newspapers that the state defines as ‘relevant publishers’ but ‘websites containing news-related material’. If you blog, tweet or post on Facebook, laws governing the freedom of the press govern you. And what ‘news-related material’ can get you into trouble? Dangerous topics to write about include ‘news or information about current affairs’ and ‘opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs’. We are also warned to be careful about gossiping ‘about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news’.
Backbencher readers should not be revulsed at the suggestion that they have anything in common with grubby tabloid hacks from The News of the World. A threat to their freedom is a threat to your freedom. We are all tabloid journalists now.
Or doesn’t it bother you as long as Rupert Murdoch is upset?