Actor Hugh Grant and a camera team from Channel 4 were turned away from the launch of the Free Speech Network last night.
The group has been launched by the publishing industry to make the case against statutory regulation of the press and last night’s event promoted Professor Tim Luckhurst’s pamphlet, Responsibility Without Power. It was organised with the help of the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society/Newspaper Publishers Association.
Although Grant had booked his own place at the event, held at Great George Street, Westminster, he had neglected to do so for his documentary production team. He was told there was not room for them in the venue at the fully-booked event so he left with his team of two.
Press Gazette understands that Grant had made enquiries on Wednesday about his camera crew attending and that he was told then that the room was already at capacity.
Grant, the actor-turned-director of Hacked Off, the campaign group for press reform, was told by event organisers that he could have access to their video footage.
Leaving the venue before the event had started, he told Press Gazette: “Unfortunately freedom of speech didn’t quite seem to extend to allowing a Channel 4 documentary team in there. I say team – camera. Single girl with camera.
“I’m invited, but just not with my camera.”
Asked why he wanted to attend, Grant said: “I’m interested in free speech – I wanted to see what their side of the argument was. Particularly because we are making a Channel 4 documentary on that very subject.”
The event saw Luckhurst joined by journalist Mick Hume, the BBC’s John Humphrys and MP John Whittingdale. The audience included a number of editors and journalists from the national and regional press.
Grant said: “I am of course suspicious about some of the arguments about free speech that come from, I think, some people at this meeting.
“There may be one or two who are genuinely concerned about free speech. But I have my suspicions that others [are using] free speech as a fig leaf behind which to hide their real agenda, which is protecting a very cosy system for them.
“For years they’ve been able to live largely immune to the laws of this country and certainly to their own code of practice in conducting a business model that has actually been, despite what they say, very profitable and has given a lot of media owners and editors an enormous amount of political influence.”
Grant joined Hacked Off’s board in August this year, after being a public face for the campaign since it launched in July 2011 at the height of the phone-hacking scandal.
He said: “Everything we do at Hacked Off is to guarantee press freedom. We want a free press but an accountable press.
“People characterise us as only being worried about the accountable side, but actually a lot of our campaigning work has gone for things like statutory defences in libel, bribery, in the misuse of computers act – all these things where there’s a public interest story.
“If you are covering MPs’ expenses or that Jimmy Savile is a paedophile and you are using tactics which break the law there should be a statutory defence in those laws.”
At last night’s event Luckhurst warned that any move towards statutory involvement in regulation of the press would be a devastating blow for freedom of speech in the UK which would be welcomed by “tinpot dictators” around the world.
He insisted that the industry plan for a new regulator with the power to fine newspapers, investigate wrongdoing and with more involvement from members of the public would be sufficient to prevent a repeat of the “egregious” conduct by journalists which prompted the Leveson Inquiry.