United Kingdom

How British Control Freaks Exploited a Scandal To Impose Press Regulations

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Hacked Off

In a fascinating piece for the spiked review of books, Mick Hume finds strong clues as to the source not only of Britain's sudden push for press regulation but also the details of the rules proposed by the Leveson Inquiry. The road map is essentially laid out for him in a screed titled, Everybody's Hacked Off: Why We Don't Have the Press We Deserve and What To Do About It, by Brian Cathcart, who is a journalism professor and the founder of the Hacked Off campaign, a group that came together to press for media curbs in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that killed off the News of the World. As Hume describes, Cathcart has long been a champion of press regulation, and the high-profile fuss gave him and a small group of allies an opportunity to hand political figures a pre-packaged solution to a "problem" that doesn't really exist. And yeah, there's a lesson in there for everybody.

Britain's phone-hacking scandal involved real misbehavior on the part of both journalists and government officials, but that conduct was already illegal — and some police officials were themselves implicated. So the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking, which morphed into an inquisition into journalistic practices, is now proposing further regulations and oversight to prevent activity that was already illegal, and which was enabled, in part, by the last batch of people meant to prevent it.

That's not the point of Hume's piece, though. He uses his review of Cathcart's book to explain how a demoralized press and defensive, unprincipled politicians were essentially rolled by a small group of radical advocates for media control.

In July 2011, the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002. The resulting wave of outrage caused panic in high places, leading to the closure of the NotW. Cathcart describes how his little group, then effectively a two-man band, took advantage of this disarray by demanding – and getting – audiences with all the political-party leaders, taking the Dowler family with them. Hacked Off demanded, and got, a public inquiry. What is more, he says, they demanded that the inquiry should look into not just the phone-hacking scandal, but the entire 'culture, ethics and practices of the press'. That was the exact brief that prime minister David Cameron gave Lord Justice Leveson when he appointed the judge to head the inquiry.

Once Leveson began his public hearings, the Hacked Off lobby was allowed to set the tone from the very start, with the first witnesses called being their high-profile and celebrity supporters such as [Hugh] Grant and [Steve] Coogan, to denounce the crimes of the tabloids they accused of creating a 'culture of pure evil'. At the end of all this, Leveson produced a report based on the Hacked Off version of events and proposals centred on all of the demands listed in Cathcart's book, for a new regulator underpinned by the law with the 'clout' to police and punish the press. The only real difference is that Cathcart wants a statute to 'compel' newspapers to sign up to the new system – an explicit form of state licensing of the press unseen in Britain for more than 300 years. Leveson instead proposed a statutory-backed regulator that could punish financially those that failed to submit – a sort of informal system of licensing by the back door. But his entire report was infused with the spirit of Hacked Off's demands.

The whole thing was eased along by the lack of a strong lobby, in Britain, for protecting free speech and freedom of the press. Shami Chakrabarti, the head of Liberty, a sort of anemic, other-side-of-the-pond counterpart to the ACLU, actually participated in the Leveson inquiry. (Liberty is the sort of group that makes you really appreciate the ACLU, warts and all.)

Cathcart's own words, quoted from his book, offer an enlightening peek at the mind-set behind the push for controls on the press.

Cathcart's discussion of the 'public interest' rather gives the game away here. What does this oft-cited concept mean? 'Well', says Cathcart, 'to start with it is obviously not the same thing as what interests the public…. That would legitimise all kinds of gratuitous cruelty and dishonesty, reviving the morality that permitted bear-baiting and public executions'.

The latest candidate for press-regulator, by the way, is the Privy Council — a secretive, 800-year-old body that hasn't convened in decades and whose members are selected for life.

Read Hume's whole article for a scary insight into how easily fundamental freedoms can be undermined when their defenders lose heart (and interest) and their opponents are organized and prepared to exploit an opportunity (Hrumph … hrumph … Newtown … hrumph).