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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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