by Brian Cathcart
The Sunday Times is once again breathtakingly one-sided about Leveson. It’s Focus-page treatment of the issue – under the ludicrous headline “CENSORED” – is little more than a lengthy puff for the line now being taken by most editors and proprietors, and a few pages later the leading article bangs away on the same feeble points.
I devoted well over an hour of my time to interviews with a Sunday Times reporter ahead of the Focus article and not one of the arguments I put forward was addressed anywhere in their coverage. Their idea of a free press is clearly one that is free to ignore views held by 78 per cent of the public. (And yes, they also failed to mention our opinion poll, even though it was carried out by a pollster they are happy to rely on themselves.)
Let’s just look at some lines from that leading article.
‘Had things turned out differently, phone hacking would have been fully investigated by the police, criminal charges would have been brought and the Leveson inquiry would never have happened. With all offences committed by journalists covered by criminal laws, there would have been no need for it.’
So why did things not turn out differently? Why was phone hacking not properly investigated in 2002, when police learned of it during the Milly Dowler investigation? Why were only two people prosecuted in 2006, when police knew of many more? Why were more than a thousand victims of hacking not informed? Why, for that matter, did the Sunday Times, supposedly a powerhouse of investigative journalism, never investigate phone hacking?
These alone were good enough questions to justify a public inquiry.
‘He [Mr Cameron] should listen to Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, who last week spoke of the threat to press freedom, echoing earlier worries expressed by Michael Gove, the education secretary, and George Osborne, the chancellor.’
Or he could listen to the voices of other Cabinet ministers, such as Ken Clarke from his own party, or the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. And what about the voices of victims of press abuses such as the Dowlers and the Hillsborough families? The Sunday Times for some reason can’t bring itself to mention them. And what about that poll, and the 78 per cent of voters?
‘A far better model [for press regulation] is proposed by Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. His industry-led regulatory body would be independent of the influence of editors, have the power to investigate allegations of practices such as phone hacking and the right to impose punitive fines of up to £1m. It would be much tougher than the existing system and probably the toughest in the world. Even so, it is a model the industry can work with.’
(It’s not clear whose plan this is now, since Lord Black appears to be its chief advocate and not Lord Hunt. Lord Black, a former director of the PCC and now the executive director of the Telegraph papers, is boss of PressBof, the body that pulls the PCC strings.)
This ‘industry-led regulatory body’ that would be ‘independent of the influence of editors’, which Lord Black is promoting was torn apart in about five minutes at the Leveson inquiry. Editors, it was clear, had taken care to ensure that they had a veto over who should be in charge of their proposed body, and their plan to bind in newspapers by contract was exposed as a voluntary and temporary expedient. No wonder the industry can work with it.
‘Some will say it is too late, two decades after Fleet Street had been warned that it was drinking in the last chance saloon. But that underestimates the extent to which the press has already become constrained by legislation such as the Bribery Act and the Human Rights Act. And it undervalues the contribution of investigative journalism, one of the few ways the powerful can be held to account.’
This is breathtaking stuff. Yes, 23 years ago the popular press was warned it was drinking in the last chance saloon. At that point it gave solemn undertakings to clean up its act but instead created a non-regulator (as Lord Hunt admits) that failed to prevent wholesale employment of private investigators for illegal purposes, phone hacking, the monstering of Robert Murat, the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies, and so much more. And if legislative restraints are so tight, how come they did not prevent these things when the PCC failed?
In fact, legislative restraints are easing. The new Defamation Bill (which Hacked Off has supported) makes life easier for papers when it comes to libel. Under industry pressure the government has also weakened the ‘no-win-no-fee’ arrangements which helped Jefferies and the McCanns get a measure of redress, so papers are even less accountable. (We opposed that.) And privacy rulings in recent months have been running in favour of the press, though they never tell you so.
As for investigative journalism holding the powerful to account, the Sunday Times obviously does not believe it should hold the Sun, or the Daily Mail, or the Mirror, or the Telegraph, or the Times to account. Are they powerful? Yes. And does it criticise the very powerful Rupert Murdoch for calling two women victims of press abuses ‘scumbags’? (If you don’t know the literal meaning of that word, look it up; it is a revolting insult.)
‘Statutory regulation, or an independent regulator underpinned by legislation, would be the beginning of the end of a free press which, as Winston Churchill said, “is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize”.’
This is self-interested scaremongering and nothing more. Leveson is not interested in gagging the press and no witness asked him to do that. Moreover his terms of reference require him to protect press freedom. What is at stake here is the freedom of editors to abuse innocent members of the public with impunity, and their power, through continued self-regulation, to act as their own judges and juries.
As for acting as an unsleeping guardian of rights, what did they do, for example, for the rights of the women allegedly abused by Jimmy Savile? The press had decades to investigate this, but in the end it was not a newspaper that opened the floodgates of revelation but the journalists of ITV – which happens to be regulated by Ofcom, a statutory body.
The Sunday Times is very persistent in its cause, which is its right. But it also surely has an obligation to reflect other views, so that its readers have an idea what the debate is about, and an idea of the breadth of the arguments. That obligation is all the greater when it is the press that is under scrutiny.
Imagine how the Sunday Times would feel if the BBC failed to report criticism of its own behaviour over the Savile affair. Now imagine how it would feel if (improbable I know) all the other leading broadcasters also buried the story. That is what is happening now, with the story of press regulation, in the press.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.