by Brian Cathcart
(Picture: Paul Clarke | Creative Commons)
Like a man being swept down a river, they reach for every branch, however flimsy, and every rock, however small or slippery. In weeks and weeks they have not found one that will hold.
Editors and executives of most of our national newspapers are losing the argument about their past conduct, about how they have allowed journalism to be debased, about how they have abused, libelled and intruded upon innocent people, and about how they have faked their own regulatory system. Their desperation is growing, and it shows.
In recent days we have been told, by journalists, (a) that too many police are deployed investigating journalists, (b) that corrupting public servants is OK when journalists do it, and (c) that News International should conceal possible evidence of crime by journalists. Imagine the reaction of the same journalists if bankers had made such claims.
Now we have Michael Gove, a Cabinet minister who as a longtime senior Murdoch employee boasts the most flagrant conflict of interest you can imagine, attempting to undermine the public inquiry into the press that his own government set up, and also conjuring up the weary bogey-man of censorship.
This is a very feeble twig to grasp at.
Gove implies that it was wrong of David Cameron to establish the Leveson inquiry on the grounds that we have perfectly good laws to prevent wrongdoing by journalists. He is, like so many of his executive friends in the press, inviting us to look through the wrong end of the telescope.
Leveson is investigating a matrix of wrongdoing and highly suspicious activities which directly implicates Gove’s former employer, Gove’s own government and the law enforcement establishment itself. There is legitimate public concern that News International wasn’t just breaking the law; it was placing itself beyond the law.
If ever there was a case for a public inquiry that draws out the facts, this is it.
The inquiry goes further, into the ethics and practices of the press, because of what Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, has rightly described as a disastrous loss of confidence in the national press. This arises not just because, as Gove’s sneaky references to celebrities imply, some famous people were inconvenienced, but because a lot of editors and a lot of journalists have adopted the approach so neatly summed up by one News of the World editor: “This is what we do . . . we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”
For years, editors have been telling us that every outrage was a one-off: from Gorden Kaye, Princess Diana, Barry George, Russell Harty, Anne Diamond and Colin Stagg in the past, to Robert Murat, the McCanns, the Dowlers, Sienna Miller and Christopher Jefferies more recently. They are not one-offs, they are evidence of serial abuse, unchecked over decades.
Has the law prevented this? No. Have ministers protected the public? No. In the case of data protection, for example, ministers in the previous government bowed to press lobbying to ensure that journalists caught illegally gaining access to our private records face only fines so small that the prosecuting authorities wouldn’t bother to take them to court. And Gove’s party didn’t so much as squeak.
Not only is the law inadequate (and remember, in the hacking scandal, where it existed it was not enforced), but the press has for decades deceived the public into believing that it regulated itself. What you or I would call a complaints department was brazenly and dishonestly presented as a self-regulatory body that vigorously upheld standards. It took the pressure of the Leveson inquiry to force the industry to come clean.
Is there a threat to freedom of expression? Again, no. Nobody is asking for that and Lord Justice Leveson, if Gove had bothered to listen, repeats in almost every session of his hearing that the last thing he wants is to constrain free speech.
Gove wants us to believe there is such a threat, I fear, because he wants to protect people and organisations which have no interest in better journalism, and which want the right to continue abusing the public. And remember – and again Leveson constantly repeats this but Gove fails to mention it – whatever recommendations emerge from the inquiry they will not have the force of law. They will go before parliament to be debated.
Gove is entitled to his opinions. He is entitled to express them. The press is entitled to give them prominence and (as they have) an easy ride. If any of these entitlements were threatened in the slightest, Hacked Off would be the first to protest. But they won’t be. In the meantime we too are entitled to point out that Gove is talking nonsense and that papers that really cared about free expression and informing their readers would report the current press debate rather differently.
But then, these people are desperate. They don’t have good arguments and they can only reach for, and publicise, bad ones. Another such bad argument will be along in a minute.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart