Bundle into Leveson

MPs of a certain type like to whip up problems which don’t exist, don’t they?

Remember when Nadine Dorries, the poster girl for Conservative MPs who don’t get out much, claimed that some of her colleagues were suicidal at the height of the expenses scandal? We didn’t get much evidence of this claim, though it underlined the reputation of some backbenchers for being ‘outliers’ of a wider unease about members of the press daring to shine lights into the Westminster village.

From Dorries to Gove, a leap of some imagination which might be hard to stomach before breakfast. The cerebral Michael Gove is the Education Secretary who talks and acts like it’s still the back to basics era 1990s Conservative Government of whom he’s a part, wanting to strengthen the national curriculum so as to introduce poetry by rote, time tables by the hour and Latin lessons from an early age. Now I’m in favour of re-introducing foreign languages in schools – it was a daft idea by Labour to scrap compulsory lessons – it’s just everything else about Gove that makes me feel uneasy. It’s conservatism with a big C and slight sneer, and when he’s not making teachers reach for the anonymous blogs, he’s making Lord Leveson reach for the coffee.

Gove and Leveson didn’t quite hit it off, to put it mildly. Just as Dorries tried to suggest that revealing the truth about expenses was somehow a bad thing because MPs were feeling their collars, Gove has tried to imply that Leveson is putting freedom of speech under trail. The Daily Mail which broke the story has followed it up with more soundbites from Tory MPs, including the self-styled libertarian Douglas Carswell. The result of all this is to add, in a drip-drip style of hints, allegations and suggestions, that the Leveson recommendations will be placed on a high shelf or within tall grass. This might not surprise more cynical readers, and “questioning David Cameron’s sincerity” isn’t exactly difficult.

I’m reminded of Tony Blair’s attitude towards Lords Reform, taking his friend Roy Jenkins’ Lords Reform and throwing it into quicksand. Cameron may well be doing the same with the press inquiry, sending out people like Gove to hint about his true intentions. As much as Leveson has been illuminating, MPs tend not to like bright lights shone amongst the darkest shadows.

Gove might think that the consequences to freedom of speech are ‘chilling’, but that’s only because he’s looking at the issue from the wrong way round. The lack of respect in this field encouraged the press to run feral and politicians to hide behind locked doors. Gove shouldn’t be criticising the process by which improvements are made to the machine; if sausages look grim whilst being made, look away until they turn up on a plate at breakfast, Mr Gove!

I’m not so fresh faced and naive to think that all will be well after Leveson. The relationship between the press, politicians and police will always be intertwined as much as before. But most people observing Leveson has seen green shoots of improvement throughout the processes, and would be knocked back further away from taking politicians seriously (and that’s not exactly registering high on any marker of late) if the end result of this is business as usual.  The press went far beyond what was expected in the pursuit of stories, and far beyond what was expected in their relationship with elected officials. If Leveson changes this attitude amongst those estates that are – and are not – answerable to voters, Mr Gove need to celebrate rather than snipe.

Remember, Gove, that freedom of speech was under threat by Labour’s constant attacks on civil liberties, and it was the formation of the Coalition which was supposed to safeguard personal freedoms. If Leveson was just a smokescreen, I fear Cameron didn’t really want you to blow so hard that we could see through the fog.  

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Press constraints/contrition

“Self-regulation is dead,” declares Greg Dyke, as the ongoing development of the News of the World, its closure, and hackgate, reverberates through the Establishment this week as hard as it did months ago. If David Cameron looks nervous, it’s genuine; the close relationship between his predecessors and certain elements of the media’s largest empires has reached the explosive conclusion everybody knew would detonate eventually. From here – the death of an iconic newspaper with over 7 million readers, arrests and enquiries, questions at the heart of Government as much as the corridors of ‘Fleet Street; – where exactly is traversed next?

At the sight of its iconic 1992 front-page – that of Kinnock as a lightbulb to be extinguished were Labour ever victorious at that year’s general election – the architects of New Labour realised their immediate future steps would be to the doors of News International, Rupert Murdoch, and every influential newspaper editor connected thereto. The creation of New Labour had right at the beginning the finger-click of Murdoch or his acolytes by way of permission. As the photograph shows, above, current Labour leader Ed Miliband trod up the path to the newsrooms of Britain’s soar-a-way NI titles. Press officers and communications directors crossed from one side of the Establishment to the other, making what has always been a difficult relationship (there has always been press barons, there has always been press officers willing to bend the rules) into something far dirtier, complex, malignant.

Cameron’s “we were all in this together” speech was the sound of a man having to excuse all his predecessor’s behaviour. From the very start of the NI invasion (“I always found it funny how easy it was to buy into British newspapers”, as the man Murdoch said himself over a generation ago), Prime Ministers and those behind them stood bewitched by the colour, language, attitude, and ultimately the power, of the new breed of newspaper industry growing in front of them. The consequence was a pact, unwritten, signed only by handshakes. Labour’s run of Home Secretaries, each more hardline than the last, effectively allowed their policy papers to be written by Sun journalists the night before. Sway became push, suggest became demand.

Above all the newspapers in this country (well, almost all), sits the ombudsman without much clout, the Press Complaints Commission. As anyone could tell you (including me in an earlier post around the Jan Moir débâcle), the PCC was the wrong body doing a terrible job, ineffectual and irresponsible. The ‘freedom of the press’ was always guaranteed when the overseeing group was self-appointed, self-serving. Richard Desmond withdrew his Express titles from the ”control” of the PCC system as easily as a teenager walking out of the house to avoid his parents.

In his speech, and in others by politicians and commentators since, David Cameron has spoken of the vital need of a ‘new’ PCC, one which is enabled to cope with events like hackgate and the behaviour of all British newspapers. The sound you could hear at the time was the loud tutting with newsrooms – whispers of ‘censorship’ and one side of the Establishment letting down the other. “You screwed us over with expenses stories,” crowed the MPs, “now we’re getting our revenge.”

It’s not necessarily so. Press freedom in the UK is amongst the best in the developed world, and is certainly amongst the most distinctive in the English-speaking press anywhere on earth. There is, largely because of the hands-off regulation approach, almost nowhere the press won’t go in search of a story. From dodgy vicars and unscrupulous business men, to the bedroom antics of pop-stars and royalty, the press provided the goods and the public bought it in its millions. Where we are today is the result – so much freedom, so much public interest, so what if mobile phones are hacked in the hunt of another headline, another scandal? The Telegraph’s exposé of MPs expenses came from the illicit sale of documents, and from there has been the jailing of former MPs and wholesale changes in the expenses system.

Cameron is right, as are all critics of the PCC, that self-regulation has to change. The PCC is not able to regulate the print media. However, “Ofprint” must not be the filter through which copy must go before the presses, nor should it be populated by the very media folk who ensure the extent to which each back is scratched. Rightly, such actions as the hacking of Milly Downer’s phone have been condemned by public and politicians alike – but what can the PCC do, and how does “Son of PCC” better them? To what extent do we demand a tighter press regulator?

The freedom of the press is central to any functioning democracy. We have all enjoyed, as consumers, the freedom of the British press; its foibles, the success stories and shocking line-crossing. We have all bought shares in the scandals and controversies. Rightly, we complain at any perceived bias – the BBC is too lefty, the BBC isn’t left enough, the Guardian is too liberal, the Guardian has forgotten its liberal routes, the Mail is an anti-everything rag. What should we demand from the watchdog for the printed press? How much bias? I wonder what we mean by our demands for a stronger PCC. When I complain about prejudice, I do so from a largely left-wing perspective; what do I want from “son of PCC”? I want fairness, the right to expression, the right to shine light on the dark corners of all the Establishment. Do I want it from a left-wing perspective? How strong should the fine be for a commentary piece dripping in right-wing bile? Or for that matter, oozing socialism with which I disagree as strongly?

We demand that the Internet is saved from censorship, control, governance. Towards the press, our attitudes are very different. With reason, given what has been happening. And from this will come, in a new form, possible censorship, control and governance of the print media we celebrate as free and fair and brilliant. My ideal world hands “son of PCC” enough power to counter the excesses of journalistic misbehaviour whilst allowing the right to expression which we expect from a democratic state. The phone-hacking scandal displayed in lurid colour the extreme behaviour of journalism’s hunt for the next big headlines. The consequences for the freedom of the printed press are only now being written; the “exclusive to all newspapers” story of that is a splash nobody thought would ever get to the presses.

news of the screws

When the on-line world exploded into hurried and manic hysteria over footballers and their unruly bedroom hopping, easily banded about words and phrases bounced around social media sites in a frenzy of keyboard tapping. “Freedom of speech,” said some. “Right to know!”.

Tabloid journalism has not always been so salacious or controversial. The British press changed, for good and for ever, around 1968 with Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the News of the World and, one year later, The Sun. The rest, as they say, is pretty much history. The more these red-tops and others like it became more sensational, scandalous, gossip-driven, an increased desire to read more stories like it grew amongst the general public. “Freedom of speech,” came back the reply whenever shocking content blared out from the newsagents shelves – photos of Princess Diana at the gym? Right to know. Readers like this sort of thing. We want to know. And, deep down, we all probably did.

After all, said the blokes down the Cricketers Arms, the tabloids are decent enough for the footie and some tits on Page 3, tomorrow’s chip-paper doesn’t have any lasting harm on those in the public eye. “Right to know!” cry us all when politicians are hauled up for their shortcomings, or one television celebrity is found cheating on another. One industry fuels another, and at massive profits for all sides, the chase for more and more headlines for increasing readers and advertising money is an insatiable rush. Drugs provide lesser hits than the journalists need for one more story above his colleagues and rivals.

Last night, the Guardian reported that News of the World journalists hacked into – and deleted messages from – the mobile phone of missing girl Milly Dowler . Condemnation has been, by and large, across the spectrum. To hack into the mobile phones of politicians, singers, footballers – that was something, one level of questionable behaviour, morally dubious, stupid behaviour for which resignations must follow. We all tutted and shook our heads.

This new revelation goes beyond “morally dubious”. If as true as reported, the acts of those involved are nigh-on depraved (and potentially perverting the course of justice). Milly Dowler’s parents took the removal of voicemail messages as a sign, however small, that their daughter was still alive. It is beyond all reasonable considerations for most sane, rounded individuals that anybody could consider the deleting of messages to be justified in the search of a story.

We are, let us admit and concede, all hungry for scandal, shock, something new in the ongoing storylines of life. When I blogged about the celebrity injunctions earlier this year, search terms “injunction footballer” and “footballer named on Have I Got News For You” landed people here in the desperate search for the identity of the man involved. Despite the outrage over paparazzi behaviour, the death of Diana, hounding of her children, sales for Royal Wedding special editions soared. The “public interest” excuse feeds the tabloids, and the tabloids feed us.

The Milly Dowler revelations reach far beyond anything connected with a journo’s desire for an exclusive. This may be the product of the twisted relationship between public and press, but that cannot be used as even fleeting justification. Plain wrong, from top to bottom, now would be a very good time for somebody with Government (Mssrs Hunt, Cameron, Cable, we look to you) to ensure News International are blocked from gaining any more ground on the UK’s media market. This episode was bleak enough; the stench of distaste should not permeate any further.

Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…