Liberty comes out against press liberty

The UK’s top civil liberties lobby has finally played its hand on the press – it favours statutory backed regulation.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Free Speech

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‘If as you say this is a war’, one journalist remarked to me last week, ‘which side is Liberty on?’ (expletives deleted). Well, now we know. Liberty, the UK’s leading civil liberties’ lobby, is on the wrong side of the fight for press freedom.

We were talking at the opening of the exhibition ‘After Leveson: Two Views of the Press’ at the ellwoodatfield gallery in Smith Square, Westminster. One room of the exhibition is curated by Hacked Off, the pro-regulation lobby fronted by Hugh Grant, putting its case for taming the UK press. The other room has been staged by me – with more than a little help from the excellent graphic designers at harrison:fraser – putting my case for freedom of expression, under the banner ‘Who needs a less free press?’. It is less of an art exhibition, more of a display of propaganda-as-wallpaper. But that seems fitting in a situation which, as some belligerent hack called Hume put it in the heat of another recent debate with Hacked Off, is ‘a fucking war over the future, not a dinner-party discussion’.

It was understandable until last week that my journalistic friend should be confused as to which side our supposed champions of civil liberty might be on in this war. Liberty had said virtually nothing about the biggest freedom issue in British politics in almost six months since the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report.

Of course, we did have a clue to the reasons behind this apparent paralysis. Liberty’s leader Shami Chakrabarti, the queen of British civil society, had taken the extraordinary step of signing on as one of Lord Justice Leveson’s elite panel of advisers during his year-long inquiry into the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the press. She had thus lined up less as an independent freedom fighter than as a member of the state’s Star Chamber sitting in damning judgement on the tabloids. Little wonder that, when debate about press regulation broke out after the Leveson report was published, Liberty seemed uncertain about declaring its allegiance to either the fox or the hounds.

This week, however, things have become a little clearer. And there is no surprise to find which side Liberty is on. The lobby group’s submission to the Privy Council’s consultation not only lauds the Leveson report as a ‘welcome blueprint for… effective press self-regulation’, but also comes out clearly in favour of a new law to underpin the regulation of the press, and backs threatening publishers who refuse to sign up to the policing system with ‘exemplary’ damages. If, as previously suggested here, the Metropolitan Police has become ‘the armed wing of the Leveson Inquiry’, then Liberty has now formally posed as the ‘provisional’, radical wing of that same crusade to curb press freedom.

The Liberty submission makes some correct (though hardly breathtaking) criticisms of the current pseudo-debate over the form of press regulation, between the Royal Charter backed by statute agreed by the political parties and Hacked Off in their infamous late night pizza-and-Kit-Kat meeting, and the alternative Royal Charter without statutory backing since proposed by sections of the newspaper publishing industry. This ‘squabbling over bizarre Royal Charters’, it notes, has ‘achieved nothing but confusion and resentment’.

Liberty objects that the idea of a press regulator being underpinned by any variety of a Royal Charter is ‘non-transparent and undemocratic’. Fair enough. The notion of reintroducing the Crown and Her Majesty’s Privy Council into the affairs of a supposedly free press in any capacity is indeed, as long argued on spiked, a right royal disgrace to democracy. Liberty then risks blowing whatever brownie points it might have gained, however, by arguing that the Royal Charter plans are also ‘un-British’. Appeals to patriotism really are the last refuge of a ‘radical’ scoundrel.

In any case, it depends what you mean by British: the authoritarian belief that the press should be interfered with by the Crown and the Privy Council is a thoroughly ‘British’ tradition dating back beyond the era of the first Queen Elizabeth. Those who fought to free the press from Crown licensing represent a very different tradition, typified by the eighteenth-century radical John Wilkes’ declaration that ‘the liberty of the press’ was ‘the birthright of every Briton’.

The Liberty document quickly shrugs off any pretence of claiming that freedom-fighting heritage, by nailing its true colours to the mast – that is, support for statutory-backed regulation of press freedom, and for the right of unaccountable judges to hold the press to account.

Liberty enthusiastically endorses Leveson’s proposal – also accepted by the political party leaderships – for the ‘independent’ regulator to have the power to impose ‘exemplary’ damages on publishers that refuse to bend the knee to the new system. This is the stick-disguised-as-a-carrot, the proposal for backdoor, indirect licensing of the press, at the heart of the Leveson inquisition.

Crucially Liberty also agrees that this system should be underpinned by a new law, sneering at the ‘misconceived perception that implementing any aspects of Leveson proposals through statute will amount to statutory regulation of the press’. Sorry, but the obvious fact that we are not facing full-blooded state control of the media does not make it okay to propose even more statutory interference in press freedom. As the relevant display of polemical pop art in my half of the ‘After Leveson’ exhibition declares, ‘Not living in North Korea is nothing to celebrate’.

Liberty then shows off its free-thinking credentials by insisting that there is no need for an outside body to oversee the new press regulator, whether that be the broadcasting quango Ofcom (as proposed by Leveson) or the Privy Council (as suggested by the competing Royal Charter proposals). So, what is Liberty’s radical alternative? It proposes that the new press policeman should be backed up by… our unelected, unaccountable judges, like the good Lord Justice Leveson himself. These bewigged wise men and women, our champions of civil liberties suggest, can be left to decide for themselves whether to ‘impose or decline to impose’ the ‘exemplary’ damages designed to make an example of dissident publishers. The revolutionary slogan of contemporary radicals, it appears, is ‘All Power to M’Lud!’. But what else should anybody expect to result from a process dominated by lawyers, judges, Lord Justices and the disciples of legal cretinism?

Few people will register the existence of, never mind bother to read, the Liberty contribution to the official consultation on the Royal Charter proposals. Yet it does matter, because its spineless, unthinking capitulation to the case for more press regulation exemplifies why such a three-men-and-a-blog outfit as the Hacked Off lobby has been able to dominate the debate. Not because they have anything compelling to say, but because so few voices have been raised against them.

True, there have been recent little scandals about where Hacked Off gets it cash, and whether one of its leading lawyers was ‘discussing Ugandan affairs’ with a top counsel to the Leveson Inquiry while the report was being sorted. But on the central issues, all parties have continued to swallow the big myth on which Hacked Off is based: that the British press has been too free to run wild. The truth – that the British press is already neither free nor open enough – has definitely been a minority report.

Back to the launch of our ‘After Leveson’ exhibition, where Professor Brian Cathcart, of Hacked Off and Kingston University, and I addressed the audience. He said that he was speaking for the hundreds of victims of phone hacking; I suggested somebody might say a word for the 60million other UK citizens who benefit from a free press.

Anyway, I also mentioned that a couple of days before the exhibition opened, David Simon, creator of the garlanded American TV series The Wire, had been talking to British newspapers about the contrasting attitudes to freedom of the press on different sides of the Atlantic. ‘You already have too much restraint of the British press’, he said: ‘I couldn’t operate under your press law, couldn’t do good journalism consistently… I find that unworkable in terms of democracy.’

Simon, remember, is a writer who deals with the darker side of US society and its policing, politics and media. His work harbours few illusions in the American Dream. Yet he can still look askance at the restrictions on press freedom in Britain, even before the tough new regulator is introduced. As noted on spiked and in my half of the exhibition: we get the million-word Leveson report on how best to police the press, they get the 45-word First Amendment to the American Constitution ruling out any law ‘abridging freedom of speech or of the press’.

Of course, even that important principle is still a piece of paper and offers no absolute guarantee that the American state will not try to interfere with press freedom. But it does mean that there is a powerful cultural and legal assumption in favour of freedom of expression. Thus, for instance, recent revelations that the US authorities had used anti-terror powers to grab the phone records of Associated Press journalists sparked serious First Amendment protests. By contrast, the loudest complaint in the British debate post-Leveson remains that the authorities are ‘not doing enough’ to beat up the press. Little wonder that Hacked Off spokespersons can appear so smug.

The argument for the principle of a properly free press and freedom of expression as the foundations of a civilised society has been almost entirely missing from the British debate about how best to castrate the press. That is why I wrote my book, There Is No Such Thing as a Free Press, and why I compressed its arguments into the ‘After Leveson’ exhibition: to raise the argument that there is only one thing worse than a free press – an unfree one.

Or as Albert Camus said, in one of the quotes looped on a TV screen at the ellwoodatfield gallery: ‘A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.’ An atheist Amen to that. And most certainly, without a full-blooded commitment to freedom of expression and of the press, a lobby group called Liberty will never be anything but worse for liberty.

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