Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities
Celebrities are unable to put behind them the exposure of their peccadillos – and worse – to a sometimes amused, but increasingly exasperated and angry public. Furious that government efforts to control the flow of information concerning them does not seem to be working, the Leveson-inspired Royal Commission on the Press comes back for another bite to the precious, 300-year-old cherry of press freedom.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a genuinely independent press regulator set up and managed by the press itself, is making a perfectly good fist of the job it has taken on. A huge majority of dailies and periodicals support it; only a timorous, browbeaten rump tow the government and Mosley-financed line. However, this is not acceptable to the proponents of government-approved IMPRESS, whose very name smacks of coercion (that is what we called civilians press-ganged from the streets and impressed into the anti-Napoleonic Royal Navy). Perhaps someone in the government service is into black comedy and hopes we ignoramuses will not be smart enough to see how they mock us, nor recognise their superior wit in demonstrating it.
The discredited Royal Commission regulatory body refuses, absolutely, to go quietly into the night and let the press get on with it. It’s as if it is outraged that any non-governmental body should have the temerity to stand up for itself and, worse, insist that it can do the job better and at no cost to the taxpayer. This last, though, would be the least of its concerns. The latest strictures involve tabling an amendment to the Data Protection Bill currently going through parliament, whose effect will be to make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account. For all its occasional slip-ups, the venerable, 160-year-old former News of the World remains sadly missed. How many were the truly outrageous scams, scandals and criminal conspiracies uncovered during its long pursuit of wrongdoers?
Something deeply incongruous lies in the fact that, while the governing class is determined to raise the press and broadcasting bar of exposure of wrongdoing higher and higher, the internet is allowed to go on its merry way unregulated. But here’s the rub! Nothing in today’s world of Internet communication can be covered up either by High Court gagging orders or anything else. One lowly, public-spirited, disgruntled or mischievous whistle-blower, anywhere in the world, can blow the lid off at any time. Within minutes the whole farrago goes viral. When will an out of touch governing class realise that muzzling the press simply redirects a desperate-to-know public elsewhere? That elsewhere is the Internet, where pretty much anything can be said.
Perhaps in the Internet there is hope for the press and the public generally. Truth, as they say, will out. Though in times past the rich and powerful often saw to it that it didn’t, that no longer holds true. With the Internet there is no hiding place. Since our world became reliant on this form of communication, no one can ever again feel safe in their dirty little secret.
So last year it was the Panama Papers. This year the Paradise ones. Even our poor Queen has been dragged into the off-Shore expose, though I don’t doubt for a second that she had the least knowledge of what her thoughtless financial advisors were up to. But someone like Bono is different. That haloed advisor to kings and presidents, gullible enough to believe him sincere with something worth listening to, now knows differently. Both the halo and the ubiquitous, trademark shades have slipped. Perhaps at last the movers and shakers will stop paying homage to the Bonos and Geldofs of this world and press them to get back to the only thing they’re good at: their music.
As for the press, we must pray it continues to stand fast. Once the towering beacon of hope to editors worldwide, it is today the most heavily regulated in the democratic world. How typical that in the relatively trivial matter of a few press excesses – almost all later dismissed in the courts – the government jumped in with the sledgehammer of a Royal Commission. Where is the Royal Commission for that vastly more damaging banking scandal that threw so many millions worldwide out of work and from which we are still suffering. Outright criminality was at the heart of it and it involved trillions of pounds. And as for Royal Commissions themselves? They are nothing more than a convenient leftover – handy for a government seeking to show it is doing something – from the undemocratic days of king power.
If these latest amendments to the bill from that paragon of democratic values, the House of Lords, are allowed to pass then Mosley and his crew will have won. Whether or not IPSO’s heroics keep it out of the clutches of the government-approved IMPRESS, the press will be effectively muzzled. Under the guise of Data Protection and personal privacy laws, they will have found the back door to achieve their purpose. This cannot be allowed to happen.
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.