The last time I spoke publicly about the press was in the early hours of 11th May 2010. I was the newly defeated conservative parliamentary candidate in the marginal seat of Westminster North and I was devastated to have lost the electoral battle into which I had poured my heart and soul for three and a half years. I was a conviction politician, the boring earnest type, but when I stood up that night it was not to emphasise my long campaign for British Free Speech or to call for free schools or any of the other issues I had promoted. Far from it. It was to let rip at the press for the many lies they had published about me, my family and my team during the last 6 months of my parliamentary campaign.
Yet at no time then or since have I ever advocated greater regulation of the press because, despite my outburst, I knew that, just as with the issues raised by the Leveson inquiry, the existing laws covered my every grievance. It was my choice not to sue but I could have done.
As a barrister I practised in the field of media law for 15 years. I have seen the arguments from both sides. I have watched newspapers with nothing to go on but the word of an aggrieved ex force Claimants through torturous libel claims when all they wanted was a 5 line apology but I have also watched them take courageous, principled high risk decisions to publish and change the course of history as this paper did when it accused the murderers of Stephen Laurence. Over time as I watched the new Labour government introduce more and more restrictions on what papers could publish: the identity of certain witnesses in trials, reports of religious speeches, my passionate belief in the principle of free speech grew and I devoted more and more time to campaigning on the issue.
So it was with horror that I observed the Leveson inquiry, alarmed that the inquiry sought to examine individual illegality and serious issues without reference to the relevant legal context. When the report was published it chilled my blood, confirming my worst fears that either the Judge failed to comprehend the significance of the legal principles before him (which is unlikely let’s face it) or he could not care less about the fundamental human right of free speech as embodied by a free press. The legacy of his illiberal and intolerant conclusions looks likely to be the statutory regulation of our historic free press. How proudly we will be able to sit alongside the Russians and Iranians.
I thought it might have been enough that we had already been humiliated internationally for our draconian libel laws but it appears that this particular Judge and his Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters do not seem to care. On separate occasions in the last 5 years we have been condemned for our restrictions on free speech by both the Americans, who have actually changed their own laws to prevent our libel judgments being enforced and the United Nations Human Rights Committee who have condemned our poor regard for free speech.
Some commentators are trying to suggest that if you are for the press you must be against the victims. So let’s be clear: I condemn unequivocally the awfulness of the press intrusions into the McCann and Dowler families and the casual abuses of the law which have taken place in the name of journalism and the pursuit of an extra headline. But hard cases make bad law. We need to talk a broader view and stop talking as if the only “victims” are those considered by Leveson. What about the thousands of other victims who have been helped by the press: of thalidomide drugs or of the Mid-Staffs NHS failures. We also need to remember the stories that are so important in holding our authorities to account but are often obtained through unlawfully obtained evidence the most important in recent history being MP’s expenses.
As sorry as we feel for the McCanns and the Dowlers and others how can destroying our free press make their situation any better? We can only feed the illiberal intolerant sickness at the heart of a parliament which can be bullied and threatened by the very lobby group, Hacked Off, which claims the moral high ground and simultaneously threatens to use the press to intimidate those who oppose their demands.
The reality is there was systemic extreme abuse of the law and regulations at one corporation and now we are going to punish and restrict our entire press, humiliating ourselves internationally with the most regulated system in the western world.
In the course of this debate, there have been some worrying ideas mooted about how we ought to be controlling what the press write about but the most sinister thought of all is that voiced by Leveson when he opened his inquiry. Paying lip service to the role of the press as our guardians he identified the question for the inquiry to be “who guards the guardians”. It was a rhetorical question, as we have now seen. There is only one option as we know from the autocratic regimes which monitor and regulate and censor their press: MPs. Oh well that’s ok then. Let’s hand our press over to the same parliament which has given us the labour legislation which mean we can’t express our faiths openly any more, which convict a frustrated traveller for joking that he will blow up an airport, losing his job as an accountant at taxpayers’ expense and which mean every word you publish online is subject to censorship. The left should be ashamed of itself with all its talk of human rights and freedom.
How did we get to the sorry pass where these same MPs are voting to give themselves the power to control our press. The whole thing is a disgraceful shambles. There is not a single act or misdemeanour of the press considered by Leveson which was not covered by the existing laws. That is why former newspaper editors are awaiting trial for criminal offences. It is why the McCanns and Dowlers (and other victims of hacking) have received payouts. Let’s hope enough MPs have the integrity today to vote for the least regulation possible of the press.
There have always been rogue journalists just as there are rogues in your office, my legal profession, the House of Commons, you name it. They should be weeded out. Personally I’d prefer my press to remain as free as possible to report on them. The one thing that everyone including Leveson seems to have overlooked is that it was the press which broke the hacking story in the first place and which persisted with it to ensure the truth was told.