Stitching up press freedom behind closed doors

Labour and Hacked Off are now prepared to hold the political system to ransom and rewrite the UK constitution in order to tame the press.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

One minute reports suggest that the leaders of Britain’s main political parties are finally getting ‘close to agreement’ on a new system of press regulation, the next we are told that talks have ‘broken down’ again. Whatever the latest twists, the one certainty is that the hard-won freedom of the press from state supervision, fought for over centuries of public political struggle, is now in danger of being stitched up and sacrificed quietly, behind closed doors.

The main drivers behind this attempt to tame the press have been the Labour Party and its allies in the Hacked Off lobby. These illiberal forces have tried to turn history on its head by claiming that regulating the press, long the ambition of kings and tyrants, is now a ‘radical’ cause for ‘ordinary people’. To pursue their crusade for statutory regulation, they have proved willing to hold democracy to ransom, threatening to disrupt the political process via a handful of peers in the House of Lords unless they get their way.

A brief summary of the tortuous legal and political shenanigans as we know them to date. In his report last November, Lord Justice Leveson proposes that a tough new ‘independent’ press regulator must be backed by statute. Labour, the Lib Dems and Hacked Off demand that Leveson’s proposals be implemented in full. Tory prime minister David Cameron says he wants to implement Leveson’s plans for taming the press, but balks at the notion of a new law to help do so.

In an effort to escape the corner they have thus painted themselves into, the Tories then propose that, instead of a parliamentary law, the new regulator should be recognised by a Royal Charter. As pointed out previously on spiked, if anything this is potentially even worse than statute, evoking shadows of the old system of the Crown licensing of the press. Labour and the Lib Dems have suggested that they might accept a Royal Charter as an alternative to statutory-backed regulation – but only if it is embedded in statute!

As these top-level negotiations have dragged on into 2013, the high-handed pro-regulation lobby has opted for more direct action. First Labour peers, led by Lord Puttnam and backed by others from all corners of the House of Lords, attached an amendment effectively creating a Leveson law to the Defamation Bill that was going through its final stages in parliament. Cameron then indicated that he would rather drop the entire bill to reform the dreadful libel laws than allow such a press law to be created via the backdoor.

Outraged by the prime minister’s refusal to do as he was told, the pro-regulation ‘rebels’ then threatened to attach a Leveson amendment to every piece of legislation in the House of Lords, whether it was about energy policy or business regulation, until the government allowed a press regulation law to pass. This is effectively an act of political blackmail, which would hold the entire parliamentary process to ransom until the government agreed to their terms.

This week, it appeared that the blackmailers might be close to success, with Cameron reportedly agreeing to a compromise deal. Under this new plan, a statute would be passed that did not refer specifically to Leveson or the press, but which underpinned more broadly the status of all Royal Charters. Thus we would be left with statutory regulation of the press in all but name. Latest reports suggest that Cameron has now had second thoughts, broken off talks with Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband and decided to publish the Tories’ plans for a Royal Charter on Monday. We shall see.

The most telling revelation in all this was who drew up the compromise proposal on indirect statutory backing for the Royal Charter. This devious scheme for achieving state-backed regulation of the press, not so much through the back door as through the cat flap in the bottom of it, was the brainchild of Hugh Tomlinson QC, the champion of celebrity super-injunctions who is now the leading legal light in Hacked Off.

Having, as their own modestly entitled book, Everybody’s Hacked Off, makes clear, sparked the demand for the Leveson Inquiry, set the terms for it to probe not just phone hacking but the entire ‘culture and ethics’ of the press, set the tone for the public circus via their celebrity witnesses and ghost-written most of Lord Justice Leveson’s final proposals, this little lobby group is now being invited by Labour and others effectively to rewrite parts of the British constitution in pursuit of its crusade against the heretics of the press.

The pro-regulation forces that have claimed to act on behalf of ‘the people’ now stand exposed as politico-legal elitists of the worst order. They have made clear that they believe the ‘public interest’ is best left in the unaccountable hands of the likes of Lord Puttnam, pulling parliamentary stunts in order to force the government to impose the will of the equally unaccountable Lord Justice Leveson. These supposedly high-minded reformers have proved willing to indulge in low political blackmail and vandalism – including wrecking the Defamation Bill for libel reform that is so dear to many campaigners’ hearts – in pursuit of their culture war on the ‘popular’ press.

The crusade to tame press freedom has brought together the worst of the new and old forms of political elitism, combining the traditional peers in the House of Lords with the new aristocracy of celebrity. In the name of ‘the people’ (you get the feeling they would like to say ‘the little people’), an unholy alliance of Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Puttnam, backed by a select court of lawyers, hackademics and lobbyists, is keen to ride roughshod over democracy and liberty.

The willingness of Labour and Hacked Off to stoop so low has shocked some radicals sympathetic to their cause. Yet it is only really the logical outcome of the anti-democratic drift in UK politics over the past decade. With the decline of the trade unions, the rump of the Labour-supporting left has become increasingly detached from the public, instead looking for change from sympathetic establishment figures such as human-rights judges (at home and in Europe) and members of the House of Lords. How much easier it is to lobby these civilised ladies and gents than have to mix with the rough-house of the public forum!

We might recall the enthusiasm with which the Tories’ opponents have embraced ‘rebel’ lords as the potential saviours of the NHS and the welfare state, through such initiatives as the TUC-backed ‘Adopt a peer’ campaign. They were happy to see a few peers defying the government then. They surely should not be surprised to see Labour and Hacked Off pursuing the same lordly tactics to get statutory press regulation through.

Before it is too late, the debate about press freedom needs to be taken out of the smoke-free rooms of the corridors of power, and into the public arena. And the entire discussion needs turning on its head. However they are to be implemented, by statute, Royal Charter or act of God, the Leveson principles, from the oxymoronic nonsense of ‘independent self-regulation’ to the new restrictions on investigative journalism, need to be put in the dustbin, not on a pedestal. There are plenty of problems with the British press but none of them will be solved by these shenanigans. As some of us have argued from the start, the central myth of the Leveson debate – that the press is too free to run wild and must be tamed one way or another – needs to be challenged now. The truth is that the press is already not nearly free nor open enough – and giving into blackmail never solved anything.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

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Topics Free Speech


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