A free press is all very well, but free for whom?The press lords are lashing out against external regulation, but they ignore several obvious problems
In today's moment of election excitement from the United States, words like freedom and liberty get thrown around like confetti at a wedding, often by people who seem to think it only applies to those like themselves. The Daily Mail's Richard Littlejohn is furious that the Obama victory was achieved by "fear and loathing", not tactics he would ever use himself.
But away from wall-to-wall election coverage, the Daily Telegraph's "Keep the press free" editorial – it appeared on Tuesday – illustrates the narrow view of liberty too.
What was it about? Lord Justice Leveson is poised to issue his report on regulatory reform of the press in the wake of the disturbing disclosures arising from the phone-hacking affair which led to the closure by Rupert Murdoch – an action cynical and disturbing in itself — of the News of the World in a doomed attempt to save the Dirty Digger's bid for BSkyB.
What provoked the Telegraph's disdain were statements made by the National Union of Journalists in defence of a statutory underpinning – here's a recent exposition of the union's case – for whatever revised form of press regulation emerges from the haggling which will follow Leveson's report, due out later this month. Speaking only for a few working journalists, the NUJ threatens "to sacrifice hard-won freedoms on the altar of leftwing orthodoxy", so the Telegraph assures its readers before urging the union's members to stop sending in their subs.
Well, I stoutly defend the Telegraph's right to write rubbish. But this is poor stuff and would be even if it did not flow from a union-bashing newspaper (does it recognise the NUJ for negotiating purposes? I think not) owned by a pair of elderly property moguls, not locally resident for tax purposes, who have laid waste to the paper's formerly sturdy character.
Anything the modern Telegraph can do, the Mail can do better and cheaper, I always say. But I would never dream of advising Telegraph readers to stop sending in their subscriptions.
Two points before we proceed. I have belonged to the NUJ long enough to be a life member, one from whom the union no longer extracts subs to spend on causes which range from the noble to the downright foolish.
As I never tire of reminding younger colleagues, Lord Thomson of Fleet, a decent old boy, sold the Times to Murdoch after losing the management's 1978-79 clash with the print unions because – after been paid for doing nothing during the year-long lockout – the NUJ's journos promptly went on strike for higher pay. Dumb and greedy or what? The result was Wapping, where the arrogant print unions were defeated by an even bigger bully than themselves.
As for Leveson, I have sat through his hearings at the high court often enough this past year to decide that, decent and hard-working though he is, he may make a pig's ear of his recommendations. Time and time again, Leveson and his chief counsel, Robert Jay QC, struggled to understand what makes newspapers tick and how they work. Barristers lead such sheltered lives.
Just as a succession of witnesses from Fleet Street failed to grasp the distinction between the public interest and what sometimes interests the pubic – low grade and intrusive gossip, inaccurate claims, occasionally deliberate lies – so Leveson failed to see that a raucous, unruly press is both necessary and often messy in an open society like ours.
We only have to look across the Channel to France to observe the peril of an overbearing state. The irregular private and professional habits of the last four presidents of the Republic – probably more, but I can't remember the details of Valery Giscard d' Estaing's nocturnal capers — would have debarred them from the highest office here, with no striking loss to the public good. Remember too that, if Princess Kate's breasts had been ravaged in that chateau garden not by a paparazzi but by the presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French public would never have been told about it and DSK might now be in the Elysée Palace.
So the press needs the freedom to get things wrong, as long as it is effectively accountable when it does, often causing suffering and distress to innocent citizens – "ordinary people" in the cant phrase – who have little means of redress. A workable system of accountability has never existed in my lifetime when successive models of press self-regulation have manifestly failed.
This is where the Telegraph fails to declare its interest. Just as the anti-media crowd has a campaign called Hacked Off – here's a sample – so the media has organised in its own defence. The Guardian's Roy Greenslade, himself an ex-Mirror editor under the Maxwell junta, provides context here.
Its target is to head off a statutory backstop of any kind to whatever post-Leveson regulation emerges. I have some of the Free Speech Network's glossy bits of special pleading on my desk. Note those heady words "free speech". Free for whom?
A major figure in this fightback is the Telegraph's Lord Guy Black – not to be confused with Lord Conrad Black who used to own the paper and did so with better grace than the Barclay Brothers. Guy Black is the paper's director of communications but also the chap who used to head the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the body which whitewashed phone hacking under his fellow-Tory successor, Lady Buscombe, until the facts overwhelmed it.
A cheerfully worldly fellow, Black is credited with helping David Hunt, the Tory ex-cabinet minister (distinctly less worldly) currently chairing the PCC, in its efforts to reform itself. Pause for hollow laughter, Fleet Street has been getting riotously pissed in Last Chance Saloon for as long as I can remember.
A recent Guardian editorial sums up the position pretty fairly here. It is generous to Black's belated spring cleaning at the PCC – but rejects his improved version, as we should too. It is understandable that the press lords – most of them also resident abroad for tax purposes – should lash out against tighter external regulation, but that ignores several obvious problems.
One is that the most urgent threat to press freedom in this country in 2012 is not political, but commercial. It is the failure of the industry – here or anywhere else – to create a new business model to meet the challenge of internet-driven news, free to most consumers online. The paywall papers have not succeeded, and the Guardian's volume-based, advertisement-funded and free online model has not cracked the problem either.
Indeed the Telegraph claimed only last month that the Guardian was about to abandon its print edition, hotly denied at Guardian Towers I am happy to report. It would be a mistake. Competition is pretty rough, hence the savagery of Fleet Street's assault on the BBC for its complicity in Jimmy Savile's abuses and its subsequent cover-up. Payback time for phone hacking in the Murdoch press, and cultural hostility too, but money is a significant factor.
Do we think the press lords would sustain the losses of great newspapers once it ceased to suit their commercial interests? In Roy Thomson's case yes, and Rupert Murdoch's testimony to Leveson, vain and silly though much of it was, showed a sentimental affection for old-fashioned print. It was not evident in the performance of his idiot son. But don't bank on it. Much of the press is conspicuously absent when costly and risky battles are fought to protect or extend press freedom. Though a doughty patron of Jewish charities Richard Desmond is not a philanthropist in the wider sense. He withdrew his papers from the PCC – a challenge which will probably require statutory underpinning of the Leveson settlement to prevent future opt-outs.
That leads to the second odd thing about some of the press campaigning against regulation. Look how Savile got away with it at the state-licensed, heavily regulated BBC, they cry. Yet it was the Ofcom-regulated ITV which finally broke the scandal after he died, not Fleet Street, whose romantic self-view does not emerge well from the affair either.
Knowing what several of the tabloids now say they suspected but could not prove, knowing what several friendly police forces had been told but did not try very hard (if at all) to prove, it is surprising that none of the fearless sex-and-celeb-obsessed tabloids managed to nail Savile.
He was rich, famous and cunning, my tabloid chums explained on day one of the affair. I was unimpressed then, even more so as skeletons have tumbled out of cupboards. "Everyone" knew, but no one knew or did anything much to stop it.
Independent regulation of the press – free from undue influence by either press or politicians – will not stop such scandals being covered up, at least for a time. But properly resourced to do its own investigations and underpinned by legally enforceable contracts it might help to keep the trade on the straight and narrow.
There is always plenty of scandal to fill newspapers, but it need not all be about soap stars or footballers' love lives. Fleet Street doth protest too much.