Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Truth is the Press is not nearly free or open enough

As UK editors gather for a conference in Belfast, Mick Hume argues the greatest threat to a free Press is not censorship but timidity

The future of Press freedom in the UK is on the line today as we await the report of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry, set up after the phone-hacking scandal.

Expect a war of words over the different proposals for regulating the Press, which range from a tough, new regulator backed by the power of the law to a tough, new 'independent' regulator with more powers to police the Press than are currently enjoyed by the police.

But there is a more fundamental issue at stake here. Many people seem to have accepted the myth underpinning the post-hacking debate: the myth that the UK Press is too free to run wild and must be tamed.

The truth is that the Press is not nearly free, or open, enough - even before a tough, new regulator is imposed to wash naughty newspapers' mouths out with soap.

The struggle over how free the Press should be has raged for more than 500 years. Once, those who published what the Crown and the Government did not like could be locked in the Tower of London, have their hands or ears lopped off, or even be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Attempts to control the Press are now more subtle, but the message is much the same: that there are things which should not be said, or read, by the public.

King James I told MPs not to discuss his business, because freedom of speech was not for "vulgar persons". Now we have MPs with delusions of grandeur, such as disgraced former Labour minister Denis MacShane, telling the "vulgar" Press to keep its nose out of what they do with public money.

From the start, some of us saw Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry as the state's latest effort to tame the Press.

Past cases of phone-hacking, known to involve one closed Sunday newspaper employing one private detective, became the pretext for putting the entire 'culture and ethics' of the Press on trial.

What's more, it looked like a showtrial, in which the tabloid Press was found guilty before the start.

The reaction from those editors on the receiving end of Leveson's initial 100-page 'diatribe', summarising the criticisms, suggest that his inquiry is, indeed, loading a gun aimed at newspapers.

Alongside the Leveson inquiry, three extraordinary police investigations continue into Press hacking and other alleged Press crimes.

Sue Akers, the Metropolitan Police officer in charge, says that the probe, which involves 185 officers, is set to continue for another three years and cost £40m. More than 80 people have been arrested already, with journalists scooped up in floorboard-ripping dawn raids.

Just eight people have been charged with hacking to date, while many others remain in limbo on police bail. Bizarrely, these operations have become the biggest investigation in British criminal history. It seems as if popular newspapers are treated as public enemy number one.

There is no need, however, for scaremongering about the UK becoming a Zimbabwe-on-Sea police state. We are not facing the Orwellian nightmare of Government control of newspapers, or the web.

The biggest danger facing a free and open Press now is not crude censorship. It is a sterile atmosphere of timidity and conformism, leaving the Press more sanitised.

The mission of many who gave evidence before Leveson (below) has been to purge the Press to suit the tastes of those who think 'popular' is a dirty word.

Behind the white banner of 'ethics', they are pursuing a less pure and snobbish agenda. I call it "ethical cleansing".

You don't have to chop off anybody's writing hand anymore - simply instruct them that they cannot say that, because it is deemed offensive, or against the public interest.

But the big question remains: who is to decide what might be in the public interest? Will it be Lord Justice Leveson and other unaccountable judges? Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan?

One thing seems certain - the public will not be allowed to decide what they are entitled to read, or see.

When Ian Hislop, of Private Eye, suggested to Lord Justice Leveson that he invite some News of the World readers to explain why they bought that much-maligned tabloid, it sent a horrified shudder through the Royal Courts of Justice. Members of the public involved in a public inquiry? The very idea.

It is high time to put forward the moral case for greater Press freedom. Freedom of expression is the most important liberty of all.

Nothing we know, love, or hate in science, politics or the arts would have been possible without the fight for a free Press.

If we want a proper debate about the future, we need a free Press - print and web - now more than ever.

The hard truth about a free Press is that, whether you or I like it or not, it must be free - to publish and be damned.

You need not be as pious as Hugh Grant, or Charlotte Church, to qualify for Press freedom. It is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving.

Press freedom must also mean the right to read and hear everything and judge for ourselves.

We should stand for Press freedom, with no buts, as an indivisible liberty that belongs to all - or to none at all.

One expert told me that the idea of a Press without official regulation came from "another planet". Perhaps he had in mind that other planet of the USA, where they have just elected a president under a constitution which makes it illegal to pass any law 'abridging the freedom of speech, or of the Press'.

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