As the endless shenanigans continue over setting up a new post-Leveson system of UK press regulation, more attention is being focused on the influential role of Hacked Off. The little tabloid-bashing lobby group fronted by Hugh Grant has been blamed for the shabby political stitch-up that has left us with the messy agreement to establish a regulator recognised by a royal charter and backed by ‘a dab of statute’.
Private Eye ran a lengthy piece on how Hacked Off chairman Hugh Tomlinson QC has gone from being the ‘sultan of celebrity superinjunctions’ to the new ‘prince of press regulation’, responsible for drafting the law agreed to by all three major political parties in their late-night meeting. As the Eye pointed out, even Hacked Off has since appeared embarrassed by the haste with which our political leaders did as they were told and signed up to the ‘incomprehensible’ deal that writes ‘muddle and loopholes’ into law and threatens press freedom.
Elsewhere there has been plenty of belated coverage of the influence that Hacked Off exercised over the Leveson Inquiry and the political stitch-up that followed. The Telegraph’s top reporter Andrew Gilligan has turned his investigative skills to revealing Hacked Off's skullduggery and its links with other groups that he says want to impose the political agenda of the ‘authoritarian left’. He has announced that exposing Hacked Off would be his latest pet project: "Arrogant, entitled, lying and hypocritical, in Hacked Off I think I’ve found my new Ken Livingstone. What fun we’re going to have together!"
All entertaining stuff no doubt, and frankly it could not happen to a more deserving group of people than Hacked Off’s pious clique of hackademics, celebrities and former politicians. This obsessive attention is also, however, in danger of missing the bigger point. Hacked Off’s influence is only a fringe symptom of a much more serious and critical condition: the collapse of support for freedom of expression and a free press at the heart of the political class and even within the ‘liberal’ media itself.
A narrow focus on who the people behind Hacked Off are and what they have achieved can act as a distraction from the more important questions: Why and How has this rag-tag outfit been able to get away with it? Why did it seem right to the leaders of Britain’s major political parties to allow Hacked Off representatives into their behind-closed-doors meeting to stitch up a deal on press regulation? And how on earth has a situation come about where Hugh Grant feels able to act as if he really were the prime minister he played in Love, Actually, ringing up members of Labour’s shadow cabinet to demand that they ‘toe the line’ on Leveson?
Hacked Off’s influence over the whole process of imposing a new system of regulation to tame the press has hardly been a secret. Brian Cathcart’s own modestly-entitled book, Everybody’s Hacked Off, openly boasted about it. Cathcart makes clear that Hacked Off initiated the demand for the Government to set up what became the Leveson Inquiry, set the terms for the Inquiry to probe not just phone-hacking but the entire ‘culture and ethics’ of the press, set the tone for the public circus via its celebrity witnesses that opened the Leveson hearings, and wrote most of the proposals included in Lord Justice Leveson’s final report.
Hacked Off has been very successful in employing the modern methods of an elite lobby group rather than a political campaign. There has been no attempt to mobilise a mass movement, the public only appearing as an invisible stage army cited in opinion polls and online petitions. Instead, in our age of an increasingly isolated and insulated political oligarchy, ‘campaigning’ is all about media images and behind-the-scenes lobbying. As with other lobbies – the likes of Greenpeace come to mind – the success of a small group such as Hacked Off depends on the receptivity of the political class to its message – and more importantly, the inability of spineless political and media elites to resist it. Hacked Off has won, not because of its own brilliance or popularity, but because the principle of press freedom is out of fashion, particularly in high places.
So it was that the political class invited in Hacked Off, to give them the language with which to express their distaste for press freedom. Thus Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed the closure of the News of the World as a triumph of ‘people power’ –meaning the select band of Hacked Off supporters whipping up a Twitter-storm, rather than the millions of people who read and enjoyed the paper. Tory prime minister David Cameron not only acceded to Hacked Off’s demand for the Leveson Inquiry, but gave the Lord Justice effective carte blanche to decide the future of press regulation – with Hacked Off as his unofficial ghost writer. At the end Cameron, the supposed champion of press freedom against statutory regulation, absented himself from the meeting to thrash out the deal on the royal charter and new law, leaving Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to sign off the Hacked Off proposal.
The media itself is also responsible for allowing Hacked Off to exercise such sway. From the first the ‘liberal’ press and the BBC gave Grant and co an uncritical platform to pursue their petty crusade against the tabloids. This collaboration, and the defeatism of other sections of the media, reflected the extent to which much of the press had lost faith in its own principles – a problem verging on self-loathing in some quarters. It is telling in this respect that many of the leading lights in Hacked Off are former journalists turned ‘hackademics’. It no longer comes as a surprise to learn that a major new book entitled Democracy Under Attack – How the media distort policy and politics, which brands modern journalists as "reptiles", has been written by a veteran Guardian journalist.
Hacked Off did not need to kick in any doors to gain free access to the corridors of power. It was not a hijacking, or a hostile takeover by Hacked Off –more of a meeting of narrow minds. The political parties and many in the media accepted the central myth of the post-hacking debate: that the British press has been too free, and needs to be tamed. Far more shocking to me than the revelations of press malpractice was the near-absence of opponents prepared to take a stand for the central principle of a free press, with no ‘buts’.
By all means, nail the pious Hacked Off if you want to. But we surely need to focus less on their private machinations and hidden agendas, and more on making the public case for freedom of expression and the press in all its forms. To paraphrase the famous Private Eye interjection: that’s enough on Hacked Off, Eds. Let’s not mistake the irritating symptom for the underlying sickness at the heart of the body politic.
You can read of Mick Hume's blogs for Spiked here