The truth about the Sunday Telegraph’s Hacked Off conspiracy theory

Last week’s Sunday Telegraph published a piece by Andrew Gilligan purporting to uncover “intriguing connections between Leveson and Left-wing ideology”. The thrust of the argument? That Hacked Off is at the centre of a “network of broadly Left-liberal groups” who have been campaigning for many years to impose state control over the press. The conspiracy theory rested on a series of made-up ‘facts’, decontextualised quotes and wilful distortions, so Hacked Off wrote to the paper asking for the opportunity to put our side of the story.

The Sunday Telegraph refused to publish the letter or offer any other form of correction. Here’s the letter in full.

Sir,

I write to correct errors and distortions in Andrew Gilligan’s ‘The truth about Hacked Off’s media coup’ (Sunday Telegraph, 30th March 2013). Mr Gilligan appears to have first made his mind up about Hacked Off, and then found “facts” to suit his prejudices. In the context of a debate about responsible journalism, such poor judgment and loose use of language is, to put it mildly, regrettable. Below are just a sample of the mistakes.

1) Mr Gilligan’s description of Hacked Off as a “campaign for a controlled press” is a distortion. We seek a free and accountable press and campaign for the implementation of the Leveson recommendations and nothing more. The judge firmly rejected any form of political control of the press and so do we.

2) The piece refers tendentiously to a “state-backed regulator”, which misrepresents the Leveson report’s proposals. What the Leveson report called for, what we seek, what the three main political parties and 75 per cent of the electorate support (along with the National Union of Journalists, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard and Sir Harold Evans) is an independent and effective system of voluntary self-regulation subject to periodic inspection by a recognition body set up by statute (or Royal Charter). This is the least that is required to protect the public from the kinds of abuses that made the inquiry necessary.

3) Professor Chris Frost has no formal link with Hacked Off yet Mr Gilligan incorporates an account of his comments as if he were part of our campaign. We cannot speak for Prof Frost, but the way that his quote is used is partial, out-of-context and misleading.

4) “Lord Justice Leveson all but cut and pasted their suggestions into his report”. Hacked Off made no proposals for the regulation of the press in its evidence to the Leveson inquiry.

5) “The even more controversial ‘statutory underpinning’ with its coercive damages and fines, was, they boast, ‘a measure suggested by Hacked Off’s chairman’.” This is wrong. The Hacked Off website states correctly that the “the minimal statutory underpin needed to protect the chartered body from political interference” was suggested by Hacked Off’s chairman. The legislative clauses relating to exemplary damages (not “fines”) and costs incentives were drafted on the instructions of Conservative ministers.

6) “Hacked Off is a campaign not just to tame the press, but to claim the country for the authoritarian Left…. [It] wants to force the press to serve defined social and political objectives – at the expense, if necessary, of the right to free expression.” This inaccurate statement is based on linking Hacked Off to carefully-selected comments by speakers at an event we attended alongside other (non-affiliated) groups and individuals. Hacked Off has no political affiliation and its Board Members and employees include members of all three main parties as well as individuals with no political affiliation.

7) “As its key intellectual inspiration, Professor James Curran…” Although he is a highly respected academic, Prof Curran has had no input whatever into the Hacked Off campaign. Our inspirations are the McCanns, the Dowlers, the Watsons and many others who have taken a public stand against abuses carried out by powerful national newspaper groups.

8) The Media Standards Trust “declared the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) unfit for purpose – claiming, without much evidence, that its ‘ineffectiveness’ had reduced trust in the media.” In fact, it published a detailed analysis of the inadequacy of the PCC which was dismissed by the press at the time but proved remarkably timely and prescient. Even the Telegraph Group now agrees that the PCC was unfit for purpose.

9) “For all the routine disclaimers that no one wants political interference with the press, it is clear that is precisely what Hacked Off does want.” Untrue. Hacked Off has made the case for press freedoms where the press itself could not be bothered. We lobbied for protection in statute to ensure that the Royal Charter would not be at the mercy of ministers and for a belt and braces approach to bars on the appointment of politicians to the recognition panel body, the self-regulator and the appointment bodies for both of these. The aim was a system which would guarantee freedom of interference from editors and politicians.

10) Francine Hoenderkamp, Hacked Off’s part-time administrative assistant, is not “the news editor of the ‘UK feminista’ website”. She organises a monthly live music night as part of a paid job with a music company.

11) “The Media Standards Trust’s director, Martin Moore, is also a director of Hacked Off.” This is incorrect.

12) “The Media Standards Trust also launched Full Fact”. Also incorrect.

Yours faithfully,

David Hass
Director of Communications
Hacked Off

8 Responses to “The truth about the Sunday Telegraph’s Hacked Off conspiracy theory”

  1. Colin Wiles

    You reject “any form of political control of the press”? But what is a Royal Charter underpinned by punitive legislation (made by politicians) if it is not political control of the press? Are you too dim to understand the implications of what you have done?

    Reply
    • Evan Harris

      Firstly, the legislation incentivising newspapers to join a recognised (Royal Charter-approved) self-regulator cannot reasonably be described as “punitive”.

      Those significant publishers who choose not to join will force ordinary individuals of modest means (among others) to go to court to seek justice for libel, breach of privacy, harassment, etc, rather than be able to use the low cost arbitrator provided by the self-regulator. As a result of that, such newspapers will face the prospect of adverse cost judgements by the court (not politicians).

      Newspapers who choose not to join a self-regultor will not get the immunity that such membership provides against exemplary damages which ALREADY exist (for libel and slander) and which are being extended to privacy and harassment. Exemplary damages are rare and will remain so, triggered only when – in this situation – a newspaper is found liable by a court of law and has “deliberately or recklessly disregarded the rights of others” and has done so with “outrageous conduct”, and in the context of not having signed up to the industry’s own code of conduct (approved by an independent board).

      Reply
    • Evan Harris

      Secondly neither the Royal Charter nor the legislation underpinning it can reasonably described as exerting “political control” over the press, any new independent self-regulator or over the Royal Charter “Recognition Panel” that inspects the self-regulator to ensure it is independent (of press and politicians) and somewhat more effective than the PCC and previous hopeless attempts at self-regulation.

      The Royal Charter itself – in line with Leveson – kicks politicians out of the process in 5 ways that never existed in the PCC (which was usually headed, and still is, by one a series of whip-carrying Tory parliamentarians (eg Lord Wakeham, Baroness Buscombe, Lord Hunt, with Lord Black heading the funding body for the PCC).

      1) No politicians are allowed on the board of the new independnet self-regulator
      2) No politicians are allowed on the appointments committee for the board of the new independent self-regulator
      3) No politicians are allowed on the board of the new independent Royal Charter Recognition Panel
      4) No politicians are allowed on appointments committee for the board of the new independnet Royal Charter Recognition Panel
      5) No politicians are allowed to work for the new independent Royal Charter Recognition Panel.

      The Royal Charter was an alternative to normal statute(which is what Sir Brian Leveson suggested should set up the independent Recognition Panel). It was suggested by Conservative ministers in response to press concerns (unfounded in our view) that there was something wrong with the Recognition Panel being set up in a law passed by an Act of Parliament. It avoid the detail of the Royal Charter arrangements being scrutinised by Parliament.

      It still had to be drawn up by ministers to present to the Queen, and Hacked Off’s view throughout was that the ministers should simply implement in the Royal Charter what Leveson hd suggested and not seek put their oar in. Where the Royal Charter does depart from the judge’s recommendations a few places (none of them major) it was a result of the press urging politicians (Conservative Ministers) to interfere, not as a result of Leveson or Hacked Off, or Labour or the Lib Dems).

      Royal Charters are used to create many entities – such as Universities – which can not reasonably be said to be politically controlled even though they have been promulgated by the Privy Council (which consists of Government ministers).

      However for good measure this Royal Charter has a short clause of statute associated with it which says that Government ministers can not (unlike other Royal Charters) alter the Royal Charter (to threaten the press or at the behest of the press), and that any changes will need a two-thirds majority of MPs and peers.

      Finally, the incentive clauses deal with exemplary damages and awards of court costs. That has to be done according to the RULE OF LAW, which in turn means done by statute. Again Hacked Off argued that the politicians should neither add or subtract from the Leveson recommendations – formulated by a senior judge after a year long inquiry – which was broadly done. The idea that Parliament should not legislate on damages and court costs in “publication cases”, and that Parliament is out to curtail the free press, is absurd when for the last year there has been a defamation bill before Parliament where every amendment made to it has been to make it easier for publishers to defend libel cases.

      No, one of the major benefits of the Leveson system is kicking politicians out of the way the press is regulated. There is however more work to be done to free our Government from feeling the need to say “how high?” when Mr Murdoch or Mr Dacre say “jump”.

      Reply
  2. Ian Cook

    Taking for instance your point 11. To a completely neutral reader you would seem to be suggesting that Martin Moore is not connected to Hacked Off. But you are being very specific aren’t you? You are saying that it is incorrect to call him a Director. Because he is only a Founder of the organisation. Why would you feel it necessary to make such a trivial point, when actually most people wouldn’t care about the difference in title, just the substance of connection? It is for such reasons and that self-appointed though you are, you seek to be involved in the decision making process in the most direct way, that causes me and anyone, I would imagine of a balanced view, to consider you as having some very worrying traits. Most people wouldn’t understand why a Press that has always exhibited bias in some way or another, now needs to only reflect Left ideology. A free society invites such regulation in the same way the Middle Ages welcomed the Plague.

    Reply
    • Evan Harris

      The suggestion that effective and independent self-regulation means a press that must “reflect Left ideology” on nonsense and appears paranoid. There is nothing in the requirements for a “recognised” regulator which require it to show any interest in the politics espoused by a newspaper member nor limit the bias shown. There is not even a requirement to separate fact from comment in news which newspapers in the USA manage to do happily.

      the self-regulator will be required to run an effective complaints service which will deal with the accuracy of what newspapers print. But that is broadly the same as the PCC now, although it is hoped it will actually be effective this time.

      The Recognition Panel itself has no role to look at content. let alone bias.

      The factual correction at point 11 is important because directors have certain responsibilities and we seek to ensure that Hacked Off’s directors declare their “interest” where appropriate. Martin Moore would be criticised for non-eclaration if people thought based on innaccurate reporting that he was a Director when he was not.

      Hacked Off’s website and Mr Moore himself are transparent about being founded by Martin and Brian Cathcart.

      Dr Evan Harris, Associate Director of Hacked Off

      Reply

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