Serious journalists *heart* slebs for censorship

Why those who normally abhor celebrity culture are cheering the likes of Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan against the celeb-obsessed tabloids.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

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Rule One of Serious Liberal Journalism: All serious liberal journalists totally despise celebrity culture and the obsession with the private lives of ‘personalities’.

Exception to Rule One: except when said celebrities do a star turn talking about their private lives in order to attack the tabloids and demand more press regulation at the Leveson Inquiry into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the UK media. Then they become heroes and the starstruck liberal media start acting as celebrity cheerleaders.

Rule Two of Serious Liberal Journalism: All serious liberal journalists respect the victim culture. They never criticise a high-profile victim or their relatives, but treat their views as sacrosanct.

Exception to Rule Two: except when the father of a victim of the 7/7 London bombings, whose phone was allegedly hacked, refuses to appear before Leveson and says the inquiry has been turned into a ‘celebrity circus’ to attack press freedom. Then liberal pundits rally to the celebrity crusaders’ side and effectively tell the victim’s father he doesn’t know what he is on about.

In the strange goings-on around the various inquiries into press regulation, we are witnessing the rehabilitation of celebrity culture in the eyes of the usually contemptuous liberal media. The likes of actor Hugh Grant, comedian Steve Coogan and ex-Formula One boss Max Mosley have been doing the rounds of all the judicial and parliamentary inquiries, talking about how their privacy has been invaded by the tabloids – and in the process repeatedly broadcasting more information than many of us ever wanted to know about Grant’s lovechild, Coogan’s affairs and Mosley’s strictly non-Nazi S&M party.

These ridiculous characters might normally have been mercilessly mocked for such posturing on the moral high ground. Yet such is the press-bashing mood today that they have been treated not only with respect but admiration and affection by the political and media elite. Even their maddest-sounding allegations about the tabloids having supposedly bugged them, burgled them and effectively hidden under their beds have been reported as facts, despite the fact that, as one leading QC pointed out, ‘there’s been plenty of them [allegations] with very little in the way of evidence’. But what’s an absence of evidence among friends? The MPs on the committee looking into injunctions and privacy referred to the three celebrity stooges as ‘Hugh’, ‘Steve’ and ‘Max’. Meanwhile, the quality media reported Coogan’s risible claims to be ‘speaking on behalf of ordinary people’ against the tabloids as if they were the serious words of a statesman.

It was left to ‘ordinary person’ Graham Foulkes, whose phone was allegedly hacked after his son was killed in the 7/7 terror attacks, to put the self-important ‘slebs’ in their place. He told The Times that he would not appear before the judge-led inquiry, which had been ‘hijacked’ by celebrities ‘for their own purposes’: ‘Leveson was set up around phone hacking but it has become a celebrity circus. Those same celebrities who have ensured they’re in the press all the time, and now they’re crying foul. It’s completely wrong.’ Mr Foulkes expressed ‘great concerns’ that the inquiry would end in ‘kneejerk’ legislation to leave newspapers controlled by politicians with a grudge against the press.

In response to these well-aimed barbs, Coogan puffed himself up even further and told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, far from having ‘hijacked’ the Leveson Inquiry, celebrities such as him were doing a public service by acting as ‘the mouthpiece’ to speak out, as his admirers on the Guardian put it, ‘on behalf of ordinary people’. He boasted that, presumably thanks to the evidence of him and his famous friends, the Leveson Inquiry was already doing the job of ‘proper public-service journalism’ – that is, as practised by the Guardian and Radio 4 – in ‘shining a light on something that has hitherto gone unreported’. Was he talking about his private life (again)?

Far more remarkable than this self-important twaddle was the reaction of the liberal press, normally so contemptuous of all things sleb. Instead of laughing Coogan and Co out of the High Court, they have rallied to the celebrity crusaders’ banners and defended Leveson against Graham Foulkes.

One leading columnist, who has been hailed as a ‘freedom fighter’ for civil liberties, weighed in heavily on the side of the judicial inquisition against the press, declaring that Leveson ‘is for all of our society, not just celebrities’. This hero not only compared the British tabloids to the Russian secret police (only stopping short of multi-millionaire Tory MP Zac Goldsmith’s comparison of the tabloids with Auschwitz), but even concluded that ‘freedom of expression has been actually increased rather than jeopardised by the inquiry’, apparently because it had allowed the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeline McCann to tell their stories. If he seriously thinks that high-profile victims such as the Dowlers and McCanns have previously been denied access to the media, one can only wonder if he reads the newspapers. The blatant way that such sympathetic figures are now being used as human shields for a showtrial of press freedom seems to have been hidden from the probing eyes of the liberal press.

This turnaround in attitudes is symptomatic of how those campaigning for press regulation have signed up to the fan club of those we might call Celebrities for Censorship. Thus, Hugh Grant has been encouraged to strut around political and media circles in the guise of the right-on prime minister he played in the execrable film Love, Actually, turning up at the Liberal Democrat conference to praise the Guardian as ‘the goodies’ against the tabloid baddies. Steve Coogan, displaying the sort of inflated ego even his Alan Partridge character might find a bit much, has been appointed spokesman for piety and the people, writing a foreword for the Guardian’s Christmas annual in which he commands us to ‘Make sure you are on the right side of the debate [on press regulation]. The Guardian is.’

Ironies abound in all of this. The celebrity culture that has been built up by the media and inflated to fill the gap where our public life ought to be (see When Celebrities Rule the Earth) is now using that guise of authority to turn on the tabloid press. Meanwhile the likes of the Guardian, who normally reserve their praise for global stars saving the world in Africa, are now rehabilitating the domestic variety, giving rave reviews to the Revenge of the Celebrities.

It is definitely right to say that the Leveson Inquiry is not just about celebs. Far from it. It is about the British press being put on trial for its freedom, and the tabloids already having been found guilty. It is also right to say that the likes of Coogan and Grant are acting as ‘mouthpieces’. Not, however, for justice or the common people. They are being used as willing mouthpieces for those who despise the ‘popular’ press – and, more importantly, its ‘common’ mass readership – and would rather see press freedom reserved for the ‘goodies’ practising ‘proper public-interest journalism’, as defined by Guardian editors and judges.

So it is also right to say that people need to decide which side they are on in this battle. But it is not a fight between the press barons and people, as Coogan claims. There is far more than the Murdoch empire in the dock here. The principles of a free press are under judicial and political assault. The battlelines are being drawn between those who wholeheartedly support press freedom, and the many more who claim they support it, ‘But…’

Are these celebrity cheerleaders in the liberal media really naive enough to believe that a more closely regulated media would only affect the ‘baddies’ in the tabloids? Or are they simply pompous enough to believe that the world would be a better place if their sort of goodie had a monopoly on what could be written and read? Either way, it looks as if they are on the wrong side of the lines.

Let us be clear. The Leveson Inquiry is not a good thing, and is not serving ‘all our society’. The freedom of the press should not be curtailed, nor the ‘public interest’ defined, by the government, the courts, a judicial inquiry, a committee of MPs – or a cabal of illiberal liberals behind the celebrity Star Chamber of Lord Hugh and Sir Steve.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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