Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Leveson's hypocrite's charter

Press freedom is under threat. Politicians, business leaders and a whole host of celebrities are desperate for more laws to bring the beast to heel.
This powerful coalition claims newspapers have run wild for too long.
But, with a few notable exceptions, show me a critic of the press and I will show you a hypocrite with something to hide.
It’s true that what is in the public interest is not necessarily what interests the public. We all like a bit of gossip but that’s not a good defence of press freedom.
Yet there is a fine line between tittle-tattle and holding our governing elite to account.
They may class some of their activities as private – but at what point is it reasonable for a public figure to close the door on “press intrusion”?
Many public figures spend years courting the press, opening up to journalists about the most intimate aspects of their lives, in the hope of selling more CDs, books and films, winning votes or gaining power.
The rich and powerful are always in danger of being carried away by their own publicity and assuming the public interest and their own interests are identical.
When their failings are exposed, they turn on the people they courted for so long.
They blame the press when their marriages break down, they get arrested for breaking the law, they lose an election or they bankrupt one of the biggest banks in the world.
True, newspapers occasionally cross the line between what we have a right to know and what we might like to know.
But sometimes it’s only then that newspapers reveal the deeper truths about those who would command our support, our respect, our attention and our money.
The long list of phone-hacking “victims” who queued up to condemn the press at the Leveson inquiry is a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and famous.
The truth is, though, that phone hacking, like bribing police officers, is illegal. It does not require new legislation to stop it.
All that’s needed is for law enforcers to do their job. Sadly, rather like the watchdogs which failed to regulate the British banking system, they have been caught napping.
There is no reason to destroy the press simply because some people – and it remains to be seen who they might be – have broken the law.
As a nation, we are lucky to enjoy a free press – and by “press” I do mean newspapers.
TV and radio are different. Don’t look to them to expose the next MPs’ expenses fiasco, for instance. And don’t expect them to break news about scandals at your local council or your local hospital.
The press is not free, of course. It is hedged in with laws governing what can and cannot be said, and when.
That’s one reason why you can believe what you read in the papers. We have to tread carefully to make sure we get our facts right.
We have to ensure we are not libelling someone, we’re not in contempt of court or maybe breaking a secret superinjunction.
And there is more to freedom of the press than the ability to delve into the lives of people who would lord it over us.
A free press is the cornerstone of a free society. Once Governments or their placemen decide what you may or may not read, democracy itself is on the slide.
We in Britain take our freedom for granted. We don’t worry about it. We don’t fight for it. Often, we don’t even use it – most of us didn’t vote in the elections for police commissioners, for instance.
Yet it’s no coincidence that this is one of only two countries in Europe which enjoyed uninterrupted democracy for the whole of the 20th century (the other was Sweden).
Press freedom ensured demagogues and dictators never flourished in Britain. Press freedom exposes crimes and scams. Press freedom keeps bureaucracies honest.
Newspapers hold our rulers to account, dissect their statements and their actions, expose their failings and encourage us to consider the alternatives.
Of course newspapers sometimes go too far. Sometimes they make mistakes. That is not a good enough reason for muzzling them.
Critics complain “they’re only trying to sell papers” as if that’s some sort of crime. Actually it is vital to ensuring a free press survives and prospers.
The press is not beholden to the State. Unlike the BBC or Channel 4, newspapers don’t depend on the taxpayer for their survival. The press is a commercial and highly-competitive animal.
This commercial freedom allows the press to stand up to bullying Governments, out-of-control multi-national corporations and self-serving bureaucracies.
The day Government stooges get the power to censor the press, is the day we all become creatures of the State not free men and women.


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