Only a free press holds the powerful to account
Today the Leveson Report on press behaviour and ethics is published. Seldom has a particular report – from among the seemingly endless stream which emanate from government these days – been so awaited.
Its commissioning was a knee-jerk response of the PM to admittedly disgusting lawbreaking by certain sections of the press. But that is the point – certain sections and lawbreaking. Apart from the little man who cannot afford, like Lord McAlpine, to sue (and a way for justice for him must be found) the rest are covered by existing law.
It was the duty of the police to act, still less to be found complicit in the whole sorry racket themselves. It didn’t need an inquiry costing millions of pounds – which we can ill afford at this time of austerity – to deal with the matter. And it jarred that it provided a platform for the likes of sad Hugh Grant to strut the stage as though he was whiter than white as well as pretend that all he was interested in was the public good. It is true that many who have reported to Leveson had genuine and sometimes heartbreaking reasons to feel aggrieved, but Grant and his ilk were not among them. Nowadays when some scandal or other is breaking news there is this childish response… ‘we need legislation’.
We have been passing laws for hundreds of years and almost every conceivable thing that human beings can get up to has been provided for. A few have slipped the net and need closing off, like stalking, but by and large, if you look hard enough, there is a law which will cover it. All that is required is that the police stay clean and do their job. Everything that Savile did was against the law, as well as the North Wales children’s home abuses, the sex grooming of underage girls and the sick activities of Cyril Smith. What else is out there that we don’t know about? We have to have authorities in charge who are beholden to no one and will not cover up for the rich and powerful.
So what are we to do about Leveson? There is no God-given law written on tablets of stone saying his wisdom is so great that we must all be bound by his strictures. In fact, there is the understandable fear that the whole Leveson imbroglio is one of simple revenge on the part of the political establishment; payback time, in other words, for the press exposing their own scandalous shenanigans over expenses and the slurry of humiliation that poured over their heads as a consequence.
For my part, I have said it before and I’ll say it again: only a free press stands between us and the rich and powerful doing as they please. Only in the fear of their salacious and corrupt activities being laid open to public view is there a chance of holding them to account. If we are admired around the world for our media being willing and free to speak truth to power that is because for three hundred years – ever since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ when James II, the last of the autocratic Stuart kings, was sent packing – we have insisted on being told the truth.
Just as the current furore over secret trials, which seek to overthrow an even more ancient liberty, open justice, we cannot allow a clique of puffed-up, self-interested individuals to hide their shameful doings from us. That way lies the emasculation of what has been called the Fourth Estate of the Realm.
In the US, freedom of expression has been elevated to an even higher level. It forms the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution and as such is untouchable. Leveson would not have been possible in that land of the free. So it should be here.
Cameron is now between a rock and a hard place. If he ignores the findings of a report that he himself commissioned and promised to abide by he will be accused of wasting vast amounts of public money in staging a media and celebrity circus as well as breaking his promise. On the other hand, if for the first time in centuries he succeeds in cowing the media by putting a political straitjacket on it, it will be a retrograde step whose end consequences we cannot even begin to imagine. Also, he will have made a bitter enemy of the media and that will not help his re-election chances.
Even under the freedoms we presently enjoy, which have allowed the press to go after wrongdoers fearlessly, dreadful things still happen. Imagine what slime will gather under future stones if you can no longer dislodge them and turn them over because the press is too afraid. Governments are famous for kicking inconvenient reports into the long grass. It should do that in this case.