Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leveson and the machine gun of lies

How can anyone seriously think of imposing new regulations on the press when the broadcasting media are out of control and the internet is anarchy?

MPs are queuing up to back a legal body to oversee the press – a form of censorship more common in France or some totalitarian state like China or Nazi Germany.

This they see as their chance for revenge against newspapers which exposed the all-party Parliamentary expenses scandal.

They are rubbing their hands in anticipation that Lord Justice Leveson will call for legal restraints on the alleged freedom of the press.

David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry to investigate a non-crime – the supposed hacking of murdered 13-year-old Millie Dowler’s phone by a “News of the World” reporter.

It’s now accepted the offence probably never took place. Yet the inquiry pressed on regardless. Talk about "don't let the facts get in the way of a good story".

In 12 months it cost taxpayers almost £4 million, mostly in lawyers’ fees.

The final bill will much more and will include fees for “participant victims” including Sienna Miller, Max Clifford, Ulrika Jonsson, Abi Titmuss, JK Rowling and Charlotte Church.

Self-righteous “martyrs and victims” like the hilarious Steve Coogan and the clean-living Max Mosley were joined by the versatile Hugh Grant and the peace-loving John Prescott.

They were all given red carpet treatment not just by Lord Justice Leveson but also by the BBC, which revelled in its coverage of how awful the newspapers – especially Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers – really were.

Things took an embarrassing turn when Mr Cameron became personally embroiled through his close friendship with ex-News International boss Rebecca Brooks.

However, recent events have made it abundantly clear how irrelevant Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry really is.
The BBC has not been the same since Alastair Campbell and Lord Hutton crushed it over the Blair Government’s sexed-up dossier used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The Corporation’s editorial independence was bullied and beaten into submission, replaced by a pointless desire to win the ratings war.

Hence the supine abandonment of “Newsnight’s” investigation into Jimmy Savile and the perverse attempt to make up for it by wrongly identifying Lord McAlpine as a paedophile.

You can’t get much more messed-up than the BBC these days – unless, of course, you are ITV’s Phillip Schofield confronting the Prime Minister with a list of alleged paedophiles gleaned from three minutes on the internet.

This desperate stunt on “This Morning” meant some of the names could be read by viewers – talk about “trial by television”.

The point is, though, that both “Newsnight” and Schofield relied on the rumour, gossip, innuendo and nonsense of the internet to do their dirty work for them.

That’s because, on the world wide web, anything goes. Many people who witter and twitter have no idea they are subject to the same laws and limits as newspapers.

They don’t realise they can be sued for libel or fined for naming rape victims – as nine twits discovered the hard way when they were each fined £624.

If a newspaper editor named a rape victim, he would be fined far more and might well get sacked.

Yet we seem to think Twittering about it is less unacceptable.

It shouldn’t be. On the internet, as Phillip Schofield’s little list showed, anything goes.

If you suggest there should be some limits placed on what you can say via the internet, you get accused of supporting censorship.

There is no doubt the web has given us all more opportunity to express opinions, discuss issues and learn from others.

And there’s no need for new regulations affecting the web any more than there is for newspapers.
Existing laws are available to deal with all the abuses found on the internet. They just aren’t enforced.

Passing off rumour and gossip as fact, or drawing other people’s attention to innuendos and suggestions, are not tolerated in print; why are they acceptable on the internet?

Contrary to popular myth, you can believe what you read in the papers. This is because they have gone to great lengths to get their facts right.

If newspapers get it wrong, they’ll be tens of thousands out of pocket, journalists will be out on the streets and their reputation will be trashed.

You cannot possibly trust much of what you find on the internet. Even sites like Wikipedia are distorted, biased, censored or otherwise “cleaned up”, often by celebrities or their PR teams.

Can you trust broadcasters? The BBC used to be the great bastion of truth; it will take years to recover that reputation.

Newspapers are not paragons of virtue. They do get it wrong sometimes. They have been known to over-step the mark, target innocent people, harass politicians and so on.

But their worst excesses pale into insignificance beside the everyday law-breaking on the internet.

Trying to close a few stable doors after the phone-hacking horse has bolted is irrelevant compared with the urgent need to tackle the abuse spreading like a virus across the internet.

Lord Justice Leveson and his band of bitter backers are busily trying to blunt the newspapers’ sword of truth while ignoring the lethal spray from the internet’s machine-gun of lies.

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