Some might see the recent conciliatory comments of Culture Secretary Sajid Javid as a sign of the pro-regulation forces pulling back and conceding, if not defeat, then at least stalemate. But who do you think you are kidding, Javid? The war for press freedom is far from over yet.
First, Javid is right that the Government need do nothing more, because the damage has already been done. Are we supposed to have forgotten how the leaders of all the political parties stitched up their late night deal with Hacked Off to impose the Royal Charter? That scheme, which involves the Crown, the royal prerogative and the Privy Council in the regulatory system, sounds like something out of the seventeenth century – which is fitting, since it represents the first system of state-backed regulation of the British press since 1695.
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Some publishers may yet agree to bend the knee and be regulated by appointment to the Crown – the Guardian and Independent groups have apparently yet to decide. And those that refuse will be subject to the key punitive measure written into law by the politicians – the threat of “exemplary damages” being imposed in court, and having to pay the huge costs of legal cases even if they win.
That backdoor attempt to introduce an indirect system of licensing the press was described as an “inducement” to publishers to sign up. As I noted at the time, if that is a carrot, it is one shaped like a baseball bat with a nail banged through the end.
As for politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with the press, no doubt it is true that the beleaguered Tories are not too keen to alienate newspapers with first a European and then a general election in the offing. What happens after those elections is another matter. As Hacked Off reminded us this week, Tory prime minister David Cameron has pledged to carry on the battle to bring the press to heel until the victims of hacking and intrusion are satisfied. And should we end up with a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in 2015, the Leveson Party will truly be in power. Maybe Hugh Grant might get to play the prime minister again in the sequel, “Leveson, Actually”.
In any case, in a broader sense the Culture Secretary does not need to do anything, since the big cultural battles have already been won by the press-bashing crusaders. The phone-hacking scandal has been used as the pretext for launching a campaign of “ethical cleansing” of the press, with the high-profile victims used as human shields. It is worth recalling that Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry was not into phone-hacking at all, but instead took the opportunity to probe the entire “culture, practice and ethics” of the UK media. Whatever the outcome of the specific hacking-related criminal trials, the press had already been found guilty before proceedings at the Leveson showtrial even started.
The central myth that the press has somehow been 'too free' to run wild and cause trouble, has been accepted by too many on all sides. Thus the “Leveson principles” designed to tame unruly journalism have trumped the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and of the press. Leveson’s prejudices have even crept into the newspapers’ own proposals for their new regulator, the IPSO.
The Leveson effect has given the green light to any illiberal politician, policeman or prig to have a go at the press. Javed’s predecessor, Maria Miller, was forced to resign over her expenses. But the far more serious offence that should have had her drummed out of public life was her aide’s attempt to scare the Telegraph off the story using the Leveson report and regulation negotiations as a weapon. Instead, Downing Street backed Miller to the hilt on that.
Barely a week now passes without Press Gazette running another story of some jobsworth lecturing local or national journalists about what they should not do. The chief reporter on the Croydon Advertiser, for example, was visited by three Metropolitan Police officers and issued with an official Prevention of Harassment Letter, declaring that ‘HARASSMENT IS A CRIMINAL OFFENCE’, after he dared to try to contact a convicted fraudster by email. In effect, the authorities are issuing a warning letter to the entire press, telling them that ‘YOU CAN’T SAY THAT’.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the times was the recent statement from Hacked Off in support of the Royal Charter, signed by more than 200 leading figures from our supposedly liberal arts and culture industries. Reading through the list of eminent writers, filmmakers, professors, actors, human-rights campaigners and others – even including top liberal journalists John Pilger and Nick Davies – who have proved willing to put their names to such an illiberal demand, I was immediately reminded of George Orwell’s prescient words from his 1946 essay, The Prevention of Literature. Orwell observed “that in England the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but that on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all”. The signatories to that statement perfectly embodied the “weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals” today. It was as if the liberal UK had signed its own death warrant.
No, whatever impression the new culture secretary might give about taking his tanks off the industry’s lawn, the war for press freedom is far from over. It is a war that has been fought for more than 500 years, since the first printing press appeared in England, and which has continually to be refought against new adversaries. Indeed, like that other historic conflict we are all commemorating this year, the struggle for real press freedom might well be thought of as a war without end.