Lord Justice Leveson and the baby killers

12 December 2012

I have worried about Hugh Grant’s understanding of power ever since he started bringing up baby. I first saw him reach for the innocent child at one of the party conferences, where he was on stage arguing for statutory control of the press. He had his stock reply ready when someone asked whether he wasn’t being naïve about the likelihood of politicians or politicised bureaucrats seizing the opportunity to censor.

‘The phrase that is always used is ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’. I have always said I don’t think it is that difficult to tell what is bath water and what is a baby. To most people it is pretty obvious.’

‘Is it really, comrade?’ I thought to myself. It seems to me that it depends where the red lines are drawn and who is doing the drawing. It depends on knowing how a story will work out and what its consequences will be, which no one can know in advance. As I listened to his blithe assurance that the punishment of free speech was an easy task that reasonable men and women could perform without qualms, Saul Bellow’s wonderful sentence from the Adventures of Augie March ran through my mind.

‘Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.’

Everybody knows it, that is, except Grant, the Hacked Off campaign, 99 per cent of the media studies academics in England and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties This morning’s Telegraph raises a further objection. What about the people who want to throw out babies? What about the people who want to drown them in the bathwater and hurl them out of the window to stop them screaming the house down?

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The Telegraph had discovered that Maria Miller had taken more than £90,000 from the taxpayer to spend on a house in Wimbledon, where her parents lived with her family. Its diligent reporters approached the Culture Secretary’s office for a response. Miller’s special adviser – one Joanna Hindley – pointed out that the Editor of The Telegraph was involved in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary over implementing the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson. Her reasons soon became clear.

‘“Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment,” she said. “So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.” The reporter should discuss the issue with “people a little higher up your organisation.”’

Hindley then contacted The Telegraph’s head of public affairs to raise concerns about the story. To its credit, the Telegraph published, even though the Conservatives are the party keenest on protecting freedom of speech, and political rather than journalistic considerations might have argued in favour of keeping Miller sweet.

Despite the Telegraph’s principled stand, don’t kid yourself that every editor will be as principled in future, and that this is not a foretaste of what may come. Everyone who has a secret wants to stop its exposure. I would, and you would. Everyone thinks the motives of their critics are suspect. (Miller’s “people,” for no reason I can see, suggested that the Telegraph are out to get her because she supported gay marriage).

The best way for free men and women to settle these disputes is to debate them in the open. Everyone ought to know that if the state gives manipulators the chance, they will attempt to rig the debate in private.

I am sorry to keep repeating myself, but there is no alternative way to stop press misbehaviour than enforcing the law of the land – a law, which may, incidentally, soon see as many journalists jailed in Britain as Iran or China (in case anyone thinks hacks are getting off lightly). By all means have a voluntary scheme to resolves grievances, but as soon as you make it statutory, special interests will start exercising covert pressure, and that thudding noise you will hear will be the sound of babies hitting the pavement.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • Sarah

    “The best way for free men and women to settle these disputes is to debate them in the open. ”

    As opposed to a gang of bully boys sitting at the back of the class throwing things at the girls, calling the, names, drawing rude pictures of the, on the board and making all the noise while the girls sit their meekly hoping not to be noticed.

    What you seem to have overlooked is that every open debate you’ve ever witnessed has had very strict rules, precisely to allow free speech.

  • steve

    From the Telegraph, today:

    Margaret Hodge MP – apology

    Margaret Hodge MP – Contrary to our report “Hodge faces challenge over family
    firm’s taxes” (Nov 20), Stemcor, in which Ms Hodge has a small shareholding,
    has not abused transfer pricing to avoid tax. We accept that there is no
    inconsistency or hypocrisy in Ms Hodge criticising other companies for tax
    avoidance and apologise to her for any contrary impression.

  • VacantPossession

    You are not alone in your concerns.

    Many of us who have struggled and strived out of sight of the camera’s, watching the creeping fingers of state invade our lives and award themselves rights to empty out pockets and those of our departed loved ones fully support you.

    Yup, the bad’uns go to jail using the law of the land.

    The politicians in particular should spend their lives looking over their shoulders. The fact that they are *still* trying to close down information which *must* be in the public domain (we are paying for it!) tells me they still cannot be trusted. Ergo we must have an investigative press oblivious to the after effects of their actions – unless they are criminal.

    There simply is no case for statutory underpinning.

    If the BBC released the Balen report to the public without being asked/pursued, all politicians released all information and answered requests politely and fully without hiding behind get out clauses then statutory underpinning would most certainly not be necessary.

    The only reason I can see for statutory underpinning is control of the press by vested interests. I don’t want that.

  • Dr John

    The hardest thing on earth it is
    To bribe a British journalist
    But seeing what, unbrib’d, he’ll do
    There’s really no occasion to

  • Matthew Blott

    This is one of those subjects where I find myself agreeing with the last person I listened to. Cohen makes some good points but the fact Ireland has statutory regulation and hasn’t turned into Zimbabwe suggests he’s overdoing it. The main issue for me is the lack of redress for those wronged. one simple solution which I’m amazed nobody has suggested is to insist that newspapers devote equal coverage for their apologies for stories they have got wrong. As the tragic recent death of the nurse caught up in the Royal phone call hoax demonstrates, ordinary members of the public can find the sudden attention overwhelming – and they don’t have gated country estates they can retreat to so they can evade the cameras. If newspapers were told they had to print a grovelling apology on the front page as well as pages 2, 3, 4 and 5 – because that was what they’d done with the lead story they got wrong – then they might not be so fast and loose with the facts. Seriously, who can argue with that?

  • FrenchNewsonlin

    Hindley’s crass and not so veiled threats are exactly why there must be no Leveson muzzle on the media. She has just demonstrated exactly how the free speech authoritarians see the post-Leveson era. No ifs no buts, stand up for the free speech fundamentalists or watch your individual rights and freedoms eroded away.

  • sir_graphus

    I agree wholeheartedly. There has to be freedom of the press; there cannot be regulation. An doubters should listen to Alistair Campbell vociferously advocating state regulation, and wonder what how that bully would have used it during his time in power. Or wonder how much deeper Jimmy Saville might have concealed his crimes.
    But then a week later an Australian radio station used dishonest means to invade the privacy of a woman having a difficult start to her pregnancy. That child won’t emerge blinking into the lens for 8 months and already the media feeding frenzy has taken one life. Apparently, no law has been broken. I used to have no doubts that the hounding of celebs was the necessary price for press freedom and that Hugh Grant just had to lump it. But this nurse deserved protection. How can we provide it?

    • Andy

      Well hearing the ghastly Alistair Campbell advocating state regulation reminded me why it has to be opposed just as vociferously. We should remember how that odious man bullied and manipulated the press AND the broadcast media. We should remember poor Dr. Kelly and the report of Andrew Gilligan which was over 90% correct.

      As to the poor nurse who took her own life recording the conversation was an offence under English Law and, I think, also under Australian Law. Broadcasting the conversation without the Nurses permission was contrary to the broadcasting code. We have laws, they just need to be upheld.

  • Graham Barker

    Not sure why journos are getting so worked up about Leveson. Have there never been any other pressures on them to write/publish or not write/publish certain facts? Have we ever had a truly free press?

  • Alan Burkitt-Gray

    How about a simple Act of Parliament? One clause: “Parliament shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    • aristeides

      Because it would be a contradiction in terms? Because it has already made quite a few such laws already?

      • therealguyfaux

        Buy a clue, the both of you. The 1st Amendment exists as a meta-law of sorts in the US– it cannot be modified by subsequent legislation on a last-in-time basis, as all Acts of Parliament can be. The Queen, as Head of State and in whom all residual powers repose, would have to call for some sort of referendum to create a WRITTEN Constitution that, by its own terms, is the Supreme Law of the Land, as the US Constitution does. Or King Charles III would. Or King William V would. You see where I’m going with this, right? No Parliament would ever countenance such a move and would call it a usurpation by the monarch, and there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell they’ll do it themselves.

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