The grubby stitch-up that ignores the case for freedom

I did something foolish the other day.

Having been sent a form to submit my votes at my building society’s annual meeting, I dutifully started ticking the boxes approving the recommendations.

But when I came to the one urging me to sanction the directors’ remuneration, I stopped short.

I felt angry. I have a perception that directors’ pay in Britain is rocketing out of control, and that the widening gulf between the rewards enjoyed by those at the top of organisations compared with those at the bottom is damaging our society.

And so I protested in a small and rather pathetic way. I refused to tick the box.

I wanted to punish the directors of my building society for the sin of greed. Yet I had no evidence that they had been greedy. I had not even bothered to find out how much they were paid, let alone how their salaries compared with those of directors of other building societies.

And in that ignorance and laziness there is little difference between me and many of the people who support curbs on the free Press.

They remember the damage caused by the phone hacking scandal and unwarranted intrusions into people’s privacy. And then a chance comes along for them to register their disgust and anger.

A judge (Lord Justice Leveson) comes up with a regulatory system that allows politicians to influence the Press for the first time in 300 years and it is seized upon as a stick with which to beat all journalists for the sins of a few.

The bigger picture, the threat to free speech and democracy that this regulation contains, just does not register. People simply see a box labelled ‘Punish the Press’, they tick it and they feel their anger assuaged. Justice done.

But they should first read the detail before ticking that box. And after they have read it they should get really angry. Angry that a small, unrepresentative alliance of fading actors, minor academics and vengeful politicians are trying to take away something precious and hard-won.

Phone hacking is illegal. Laws were already in place to punish the tiny minority of journalists guilty of it. The fact that intentional law-breaking was not investigated properly initially is a failing of the legal system, not the Press. In fact, it was a newspaper (The Guardian) that brought pressure for the criminal investigation into hacking to be reopened after the 2006-07 inquiry by the Metropolitan Police.

Britain already has tougher controls on the Press than is healthy in a democracy. The Official Secrets Act lets the Government decided what can and cannot be printed in the interests of what it decides is national security. Libel laws are weighted heavily towards complainants and, combined with the punitive damages courts can award, serve to suppress unflattering news. The 2010 Bribery Act puts journalists seeking a story at risk of prosecution for buying so much as a lunch for a public official. Worryingly, politicians are constantly seeking to introduce more restrictive legislation such as that which would usher in secret courts to hear evidence about the intelligence services in private.

People may not like everything the Press does, but it has served Britain well since state licensing was removed in 1695. In recent times, scandals such as Thalidomide, MPs’ expenses, cash-for-questions and cheating cricketers have been exposed by journalists. Campaigners for press regulation say their reforms will not restrict “serious public interest” investigations such as these. Really? Once politicians have influence, however tenuous, over the Press are we really to believe that they will not use it to suit their own ends rather than society’s? Their past behaviour leaves me less than convinced. I wonder how many of them, as they lined up to in the Commons to congratulate themselves for reining in the Press, were savouring revenge for journalists’ exposure of their shameful abuse of their expenses system?

Nothing illustrates the dubious integrity of some parliamentarians better than the grubby stitch-up in which political leaders reached a late-night deal to impose Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals via a Royal Charter defined by statue. Amazingly, members of grudge-bearing Hugh Grant’s Hacked Off campaign group were present at these secret talks, while representatives of newspapers were not. All parties to the agreement made conflicting statements claiming victories for their sides, rather than the public interest. It was a sickeningly opaque way to barter over our democratic freedoms, and has been condemned around the world.

And then there is the detail of the Royal Charter plan. It contains baffling layers of bureaucracy, it is described as self-regulation but denies newspapers a say in the choice of regulators or the regulation to be imposed, and it imposes financial penalties that threaten the very survival of newspapers that decline to join the ‘voluntary’ system.

Furthermore, the regional press, whom Leveson said had done nothing wrong and deserved the support of the Government, is being brought into the jurisdiction of this regulator. Why? Local newspapers need help, not tighter controls. They are part of the glue that holds communities together. They are undoubtedly a force for good.

Finally, why are politicians devoting so much energy to bringing to heel an industry that most commentators agree is declining? The future of journalism lies online. Websites read in Britain may be based anywhere in the world. They are impossible to regulate, but may, of course, be blocked by a government hostile to their content. Is out-and-out online censorship where we are heading?

Tick the box to approve curbs on the Press if you will, but do not be surprised to later think your decision foolish in a brave new world of tame journalists, imperious politicians and celebrities free to publicly indulge their grotesque excesses without fear of exposure.

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About John Wilson

Group deputy editor of the Worcester News, Berrow's Worcester Journal, Malvern Gazette and Evesham Journalist. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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