It took centuries to fight for a free press – now we have 24 hours to save it. Tomorrow sees the end of the government consultation on the next steps of the Leveson Inquiry, the judge-led inquisition that used the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World as a pretext for a purge of the popular press. The government is asking us two questions. First, should Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act be implemented? And second, should the government commence with Leveson 2, another m’lud-led inquiry, this time focusing on the relationship between the police and the press?
As part of the #FreeThePress campaign, spiked is urging the British public to say an emphatic NO to both (respond to the consultation here). Section 40 would force publications to sign up with a state-backed regulator or else be forced to pay the legal costs of anyone who brings a civil case against them, whether they win or lose. It’s an invitation for anyone with an axe to grind to launch frivolous law suits to bankrupt papers they dislike. To rub salt in the wound, the only regulator approved by the Press Regulation Panel – set up by Royal Charter after Leveson 1 – is Impress, which is funded by tabloid hater Max Mosley.
Then there’s Leveson 2. At the original inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson probed the relationship between the press and the authorities, calling for an end to off-the-record briefings. As Mick Hume wrote on spiked last week, Leveson 2 would take us further down the road to a secret state, in which this move towards ‘transparency’ would result in officials keeping schtum and the public being left in the dark. What’s more, it would effectively be a rerun of the five-year-long police witch-hunt against tabloid journalists – investigations into phone-hacking, computer hacking and paying public officials for information – which ended in the acquittal of all but a handful of the defendants.
Section 40 would mark the end of an independent press in Britain. For the first time in over 300 years newspapers would be, in effect, licensed by a state-backed body – one staffed by people who openly hate the tabloids’ guts. And Leveson 2 would severely limit what the press could do with what little ‘freedom’ it had left. For all the handwringing about the decline of proper ‘public interest’ journalism, papers would become ever more wary of shining a light on those in power for fear of having their collar felt or falling foul of an ethics committee. Listicles and cat videos, here we come.
Of course, it was precisely the ‘speak truth to power’ stories that Leveson insisted would be untouched. At the outset of the inquiry, Leveson’s right-hand-man Robert Jay QC cited the Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses investigation and (unsurprisingly) the Guardian’s scoop about phone-hacking at the News of the World as two examples of journalism he had no interest in meddling with. But even the respectable broadsheets would be effected by the government’s plans. At present, neither the Telegraph nor the Guardian has signed up to Impress (the thoroughly pro-Leveson Guardian remains self-regulating).