How British Liberals Sold Out Free Speech

A new wave of press censorship hits the U.K.


Steve Coogan
Wikimedia Commons

When the actor and comedian Steve Coogan (pictured) was made a patron of the Index on Censorship earlier this month, the British media's guffawing could be heard round the world. Coogan, you see, is a leading light in Hacked Off, the celeb-packed censorious outfit that has spent the past three years agitating for state-backed regulation of Britain's raucous tabloid press. For a venerable free-speech group like Index on Censorship to make the celebrity censor Coogan a patron is like the British Humanist Association giving a job to the Pope of Rome.

So it's understandable that large sections of the British press went into meltdown over Coogan's appointment. A writer for the Daily Mail said Index's embrace of Coogan was a "shabby betrayal of freedom of expression." Index was founded in 1972 to be a "champion of free expression," the Mail reminded us, yet now it cosies up to a man who has been the most visible, vocal advocate of state-legislated regulation of the press during the Murdochite phone-hacking scandal of the past three years.

This is a celeb who thinks "freedom of expression does not apply to those writing about his own affairs," said the Mail (Coogan was famously made irate by the muckraking tabloids after they exposed some of the shenanigans of his private life), yet he's now been welcomed with open arms by one of the world's best-known free-speech outfits that once "oppos[ed] tyrants in the Soviet Union and the Third World and passionately defend[ed] the freedom of the press."

On another level, though, it is odd that there has been so much shock at the shacking-up between Coogan and Index. Because, believe it or not, there are many incestuous links between those warriors for press censorship at Hacked Off and those one-time battlers for freedom of expression at Index on Censorship.

Indeed, the current campaign to enforce tighter state regulation of the press in Britain is being spearheaded by individuals who are intimately associated with, or who previously worked for, free-speech groups such as Index on Censorship, PEN International, and Liberty. This is the terrible, untold irony of the current war of words against press freedom in Britain: It is being waged by those who, just three or four years ago, were key players in the supposedly anti-censorship sections of Britain's liberal establishment. The eye-swivelling speed and ease with which these one-time complainers about censorship became cheerleaders for state-backed regulation of the press needs some explaining.

Hacked Off was founded in 2011 by the Media Standards Trust, a group devoted to "cleaning up" (some would say taming) British journalism. It was set up in response to the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's Sunday tabloid the News of the World (now deceased), where some journos were using less-than-admirable methods for getting stories about celebs, royals, and ordinary members of the public who found themselves caught up in crimes or scandals.

With big-name actors Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant doing much of its bidding, and with effusive support from numerous influential writers, thinkers, and comedians from across the U.K., Hacked Off has been extraordinarily successful. Its demand for firmer state oversight of the naughty press has influenced everyone from Lord Justice Leveson, the judge who oversaw the 2011-2012 Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking at the tabloids and into the "culture, practices and ethics of the press," to the various politicians who have spent much of the year-and-a-half since Leveson published his 2,000-page report coming up with new ideas for how the press might be brought to heel.

Thanks in large part to Hacked Off, Britain now faces the very real prospect of the state venturing back into the world of the press and doing something it hasn't done for around 350 years: reprimanding press reporting which in its view is "unethical" and officially distinguishing between the good, ethically correct press (the broadsheets, basically) and the bad, unacceptable press (the tabloids). So the gains made by John Milton and other heroic historical figures who fought tooth-and-catapult against the state licensing of the press ("give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties," cried Milton in 1643) could be reversed by tabloid-haters like Coogan, Grant, and too many Members of Parliament to mention.

And who staffs a censorious outfit like Hacked Off? Who are its leaders? Incredibly, people from Index on Censorship.

It isn't just Coogan. Hacked Off's inaugural executive director and key thinker, the man who wrote its bible, Everybody's Hacked Off, is one Brian Cathcart—a former key writer for Index on Censorship.

Prior to becoming the architect of most of the arguments spouted by Coogan and Grant for state regulation of the press, Cathcart was best known as a contributor to and campaigner for Index on Censorship. Indeed, it was in his Index on Censorship blog that he first announced his decision to set up Hacked Off. On 4 July 2011, he told Index readers that he had got funding and support for a campaign to demand an official inquiry into the antics of the redtops, and Index readers didn't seem to think it was at all weird for a writer for a free-speech campaign group to start agitating for a state-led investigation of the culture and ethics of the press. On the contrary, they cheered him on, with one saying, "All the best in this vital campaign."

The government quickly heeded this cry for a public inquiry into the press—a cry first made on the website of Index on Censorship, let's remember. Ten days later, on July 14, 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the setting-up of the Leveson Inquiry. Many of the censorious proposals later made by Lord Leveson were effectively cribbed from Cathcart's book, Everybody's Hacked Off. So, get this: Hacked Off was set up by a writer for Index on Censorship; its formation was first announced on the website of Index on Censorship; and the key Leveson arguments for tighter control of the press were first formulated by this former contributor to Index on Censorship.

There's more. Another of Hacked Off's most visible spokesmen, the former Member of Parliament Evan Harris, has previously worked with Index on Censorship on its campaigns for reform of the English libel laws. And last year it was revealed that one of the donors to Hacked Off is Simon Singh, the science writer, who has also worked with Index on Censorship on its libel-reform campaign. That so many Hacked Off people come from the Index on Censorship camp is, to say the very least, odd.

Other venerable free-speech outfits have likewise provided Hacked Off with people and arguments in its campaign to muzzle the low-rent press. Hacked Off's current executive director, taking over from Cathcart last month, is Joan Smith, a columnist for the Independent. She really hates the tabloids. When she gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry, she described journalists like herself, who write for proper newspapers, as a "different breed" to tabloid hacks. Prior to taking the lead in the censorious campaign group Hacked Off, Smith was known for a different kind of campaigning: She was chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, the anti-censorship campaign founded in 1921 which agitates for the right of writers to express themselves and publish their thoughts. Unless, one presumes, those writers are of a lower "breed" than the likes of Smith, in which case every effort can then be made to silence, punish, and imprison them—in Britain over the past five years of political hysteria about allegedly demonic tabloid behaviour, 104 newspaper staff have been arrested, questioned, often put on elongated bail, and some have been imprisoned.

How extraordinary that a woman who once campaigned for the rights of imprisoned writers should now steer a campaign group that cheers the imprisonment of tabloid journalists. And how extraordinary that the first two executive directors of Hacked Off should have come from the ranks of Index on Censorship and PEN International.

To see the extent to which Britain's liberal establishment  has conspired with the attempted reintroduction of the boot of the state into the world of the press, just look at the list of 200 cultural bigwigs who earlier this year signed Hacked Off's letter demanding that the press sign up to Leveson's proposed state regulation by Royal Charter. Key writers who have for years depicted themselves as devotees of freedom of speech and the right to publish put their names on the dotted line for Hacked Off, including Michael Frayn, A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, V.S. Naipul, even Salman Rushdie. Many of these writers, most notably Rushdie, previously stood up for the freedom to speak, to utter, to scribble, to think, and many of them worked with groups like Index or PEN—yet here they now were signing a letter agitating for state policing of the press.

But surely Britain's best-known civil-liberties group, Liberty, has taken a stand against the campaign to demonise and muzzle the tabloid press? Well, not quite. In fact Liberty's director, Shami Chakrabarti, was an actual panel member of the Leveson Inquiry, one of the Great and Good who sat in judgement of the sinning tabloids in this modern-day Star Chamber.

So get your heads around these facts, if you can: The campaign to restrict the historic rights of the press to rabble-rouse and publish and be damned—rights fought for over centuries by some of Britain's greatest liberals—has been led from the very start by people associated with Index on Censorship, PEN International, and Liberty, and cheered on by the liberal establishment. It wasn't a brutal state or truncheon-wielding coppers who effectively brought to an end 350 years of relative press freedom in Britain—it was liberals; it was progressives; it was the cultural elite; it was people who have made a name for themselves over the past 30 or 40 years as supporters of freedom of speech, though we now know what a colossal con that was. Liberty and Index have since made fairly anaemic statements saying the state shouldn't venture too far into the press—but it's too little, too late. Index and Liberty people were central to creating the climate of hysteria that has allowed the British state to loom large over the press for the first time in nearly four centuries.

How can this be? How could yesteryear's agitators for writers' freedom become today's demanders of state regulation of the press? It's because, in truth, such people's commitment to freedom of speech was always pretty partial. It was always fuelled, less by a full-on, balls-out, consistent conviction that everyone, regardless of their "breeding," should have the right to think, say, and write whatever they pleased, than it was by a belief that some writers had very important things to say and that their liberties should be protected. It was a free-speech position always more outraged by the harassment of Nobel Prize-winning authors in places like Eastern Europe than by state intervention into the affairs of the hacks and dimwits here at home. It was driven by a feeling that the purveyors of fine literature and clever ideas deserved freedom of speech, but badly bred, foul-mouthed tabloid hacks? Fuck them. Imprison them.

The phone-hacking scandal in Britain killed off the News of the World, a Sunday paper that had been in existence since 1843. It has also killed off something else, though not many people seem to have noticed: It has laid to waste the claims of Britain's liberal, progressive establishment to be committed to freedom of speech. These individuals, and many of the people in groups like Index and PEN that were their intellectual homes, now stand exposed as censors in disguise, pretty happy to see the state pummel those writers and editors whose publications offend the educated liberal sensibility. The era of these middle-aged, bourgeois, partial pontificators about freedom of speech is now surely over; the remnants of their institutions should finally be swept aside, ideally by a new, younger generation of freedom-of-speech campaigners who actually believe in freedom of speech.