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Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities

Judges Procession To Westminster Abbey To Mark The Start Of The Legal Year

Sir Brian Henry Leveson PC

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.

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An exciting year awaits!

The ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. Image © Steve Bell.

The ruling class have failed to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. Image © Steve Bell.

The year is young, even if some of us are not. I thank my readers for showing interest in my musings over this past year and hope they will hang in there for another.

My feelings about 2015 are that it will fully live up to that old Chinese adage on parting from a friend or acquaintance, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Think about it: no pundit has ever approached an election with so little of an idea as to how it will all pan out. The stakes are incredibly high.

If we elect Red Ed, then the spectre of a departure from the EU recedes as he has no intention of holding a referendum. That should please the Europhiles. On the other hand, if he pursues the path of his hero François Hollande of France, whose policies he’s publicly endorsed, then he will jeopardise a recovery which is the envy of the world and which even the IMF itself said recently was unlikely to happen. To add to confusions and insecurities, it seems distinctly possible that the man who resoundingly lost the Scottish independence referendum and who slunk away with his tail between his legs is now set to bounce back as England’s ‘Kingmaker’ and become part of that same Westminster clique he so scathingly denounced throughout the referendum. But what if Cameron – while gaining the most seats – fails again to win an outright majority? Will he attempt once more to climb into bed with the much derided and ridiculed Clegg? Or will Theresa May’s day have come and the party turf our Dave out in favour of ‘kitten shoes’?

Maybe beer-swilling, cigar-chomping Nigel Farrage will make such a scenario a condition of his anticipated clutch of Ukip MPs joining with the Conservatives to keep Labour out, saying as he laid out his stall, that he couldn’t possibly ask his boys to support a man who once described them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Working with Theresa would be much more fun, particularly as it would demonstrate that our Nige and his cohorts were not against women per se. But they would point out they needed to be of the right type: the Thatcher/Boudicca variety. The then adolescent Nige still vividly remembers being powerfully affected by the leather-clad, jack-booted ‘Great She Elephant’ (Thatcher) as depicted in ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Private Eye’. He even recalls frissons of sexual excitement at the way she liked bringing her riding crop down on any recalcitrant cabinet member. A favourite victim was poor, timid chancellor Geoffrey Howe. Not known for her sense of humour, even she saw the funny side when Labour’s former chancellor, Dennis Healey, said “being attacked by Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep”.

So now we are in an election run-up in which absolutely all bets are off. My own feelings tell me that there will be local deals between Ukip and Conservative candidates in which they agree not to split the right-of-centre vote if there is a chance of administering a good kicking to the incumbent Labour MP and giving him the old heave-ho.  Such deals, I believe, will be made regardless of what the leadership wishes. So I predict a very messy and fractious bunch of new MPs arriving at Westminster. As well as the usual tired old band of re-treads, there will be loads of gurning, cantankerous Scottish Nationalists – specially authorised by their slippery leader to drive their English compatriots to distraction – as well as a band of screamingly politically incorrect Ukipers and a sad little rump of Lib Dems. I even think Wales – where it used to be said that even a donkey wearing a red rosette would get itself elected – may be ready to give that donkey’s party (Labour) a good hammering and have their own nationalists sent to Westminster in their place. And I wouldn’t put that past even the Cornish in the future – as a way of thanking ‘Calamity Clegg’ for giving them special status – by ridding the Duchy of his long-established Lib Dem MPs and installing their own brand of nationalists in their place.

What seems obvious to all but the Westminsterites is that the ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. With the possible exception of the military, the whole job lot have been found wanting. Even the Church has been shockingly compromised, with children’s homes being added to the time-honoured choirboy repertoire by predatory priests.

The Westminster Village clique are hated for their highhandedness – their unprincipled, venal use of taxpayers’ money and their lack of understanding of what this recession has done to the middle classes. Only last year they accepted a pay rise greater by far than they imposed on the rest of their public sector comrades and billed the five-year-long recession-crucified taxpayer an amount for expenses even bigger than the great expenses year scandal that so shattered their egos a few years ago. Many MPs have not forgiven the press for that excruciating public exposure.

Also hated by many are the police. A long list of terrible failures, from Hillsborough right through to Jimmy Savile, have doomed them. As I write this article it is reported that Cressida Dick, of the appalling, seven-shots-to-the-head Stockwell underground shooting of the innocent Brazilian Charles de Mendez, is to be honoured in the New Year’s Day Honours List. Since that terrible day she has gone from promotion to promotion. Are they intent on rubbing our noses in it to show how truly impotent we, the public, really are? And what about those theatrical, scandalous celebrity dawn raids on suspects’ homes? And their even more scandalous abuse of police bail, whereby they keep them under that career-destroying shadow for anything up to a year before, in most cases, releasing them?

The judiciary have fared little better. They are hated for their secret courts; their refusal to return murderers and rapists to their countries of origin; as well as its lawyers who, at vast public expense, fight for these criminals to stay here to the tune of £millions.

And let’s not forget either the town halls. Once the Town Clerk was a respected figure. Now his grandly titled successor, the CEO (they do love these self-important terms, don’t they, even having their own ‘Cabinets’) expects to be paid twice what the PM is paid, and their minions similarly rewarded. These obscenely paid jobsworths wouldn’t last one minute in the private sector. I doubt if more than a thimbleful of them would get shortlisted even for a job interview. While looking after themselves, they happily dispense with large numbers of their own, and as many of the more sensitive public services, as they can get away with. The idea being, of course, to discredit the whole notion of economies and getting value for money, as every household has had to do for years.

In similarly low esteem are the Revenue Collectors. The public despise them for their cowardly ‘sweetheart deals’, sucking-up-to and leniency towards the likes of Google, Starbucks and the rest while they mercilessly traduce the public. Even now they are laying plans to lift thousands out of individuals’ bank accounts without so much as a by-your-leave, never mind a court order.

But most of all the public hate the bankers, whom many believe brought us to this sorry pass. They blame them for leading this shameless descent into amorality and corrupt practices. These same miscreants still insist they are worth their obscene bonuses. Not a single one of the banks’ crooks is behind bars, and yet we know that criminality on an industrial scale was rife and that the sums involved ran to hundreds of billions. Compared to these Libor rate fixings, mis-sold PPI policies and companies deliberately driven into bankruptcy in order to asset strip them, anything that certain sections of the press did was trivial and small beer – regrettable though it was. Indeed, these banker boys never do or did anything at the petty level. It was they, after all, that managed the extraordinary feat of nearly crashing the entire global financial system. Millions went on the dole and the public was plunged into the misery of a five-year fightback right across the developed world to restore normality after having had hundreds of billions sequestered to prop up a bankrupt system which was judged ‘too big to fail’ and faced, in the process, a decade of falling living standards. How nice to be a bank and run a business where no matter what you do you never have to face the consequences. Even better is that when you make a cock-up and your criminality is exposed, you get away with it with barely a slap on the wrist and expect to be rescued and given another chance.

Not so lucky were the journos. While not for one minute did our Dave consider employing the majesty of the law to find out what went wrong with banking, name names and expose the culprits, the journos of the press – who had so embarrassed his Westminster chums – would have to face that majesty in their place. It was payback time. Into the frame stepped the infamous Leveson Inquiry. Andy Coulson and many of his associates went to Choky and continue to do so. Meanwhile those same banker chums continue to traipse in and out of Downing Street as though nothing ever happened, and in numbers greater than all the rest of British industry and commerce put together (which shows who’s got the ear of the ‘posh boys’, doesn’t it, and why they will never have to wear prison blue).

So, come May, don’t be surprised if this anti-establishment backlash assumes massive proportions and brings a dramatic reversal to years of falling voter turnout when ‘the plebs’ set out to overturn the establishment’s applecart. Either that or it will be close to a boycott if they decide en masse to stay away, taking the view that their votes will change nothing: ‘A plague on all your houses!’

Traditionally any leader presiding over such a climb-back from certain catastrophe, boasting 1.75 million new jobs and facing an opposition leader so utterly devoid of anything associated with leadership, could expect to be massively ahead in the polls. Yet Cameron is not. Something very strange is going on out there.

In all these musings I have said not a word about what is happening in the broader world, and surely they are terrible. No pundit either, in that confused and bloody mayhem, can point to a way out. That subject must be for another article. But for us, in the meantime, let’s raise our glasses for this New Year of 2015 and pray that answers will be found abroad too. We can take genuine pride in having overtaken France to be the world’s 5th largest economy, and they say that by 2030 we will have overtaken Germany as well. Glory be! The last time we were there was 1954, but that was because we destroyed most of her economy in WWII. She had originally overtaken us in 1894 and that’s when our troubles really began. Clever, industrious Fritz got too big for his jackboots.

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.

SOURCE: REUTERS

SOURCE: REUTERS

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.

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