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James Delingpole

Public-interest piety is the real threat to a free press

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

For me the only useful fact to emerge from the otherwise immensely tedious Leveson inquiry was this: that messages on the phone of Milly Dowler were not erased by News of the World journalists.

Of course, it would have been a much, much better story if they had been. Eavesdropping on the phone messages of a murdered schoolgirl may be creepy and unpleasant but it is essentially a victimless crime. Actively interfering with those messages, on the other hand, might have had serious consequences. Perhaps false hope might have been given to Milly’s distraught parents. Perhaps the police inquiry might have been jeopardised. We can only speculate, though, on those serious consequences because, remember — contrary to reports in the Guardian — those messages were not deliberately erased.

When earlier this year the Guardian’s investigative reporter Nick Davies went to collect his Paul Foot award I thought that this detail might have been mentioned. In fact, to be honest, I thought it would have ruled him out of contention. Even if it was a genuine mistake — and a newspaper as noble as the Guardian would never sex up a story with blatant untruths, would it? — it was absolutely pivotal to the shocked worldwide attention Davies’s investigation received. Killing Britain’s most popular newspaper — and with it the livelihoods of dozens of journalists — on the basis of a grievous factual error strikes me as a pretty odd way to win a press award.

I didn’t mention this at the time because a) I thought quite enough attention was being given to the dreary Leveson already  and b) I began to wonder whether maybe I’d been dreaming. Surely if it were true it would be on the front page of all the newspapers? (Well, apart from the Guardian, maybe.) Davies would have been stripped of his award. The Press Complaints Commission would have found against him. And every time the Milly Dowler story had been mentioned in the press thereafter, there would have been at least one par detailing how the Guardian had strayed far beyond the bounds of decent, honest reporting into the realms of what could be interpreted as malicious gossip and political smearing.

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But now it turns out I wasn’t the only one astonished that the Guardian had been rewarded for flirting with the kind of hypocrisy, deviousness and casual disregard for facts it so condemned in the News of the World. Enter Mick Hume, who has just written one of the most persuasive polemics I’ve read in ages: There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press.

Hume’s contention — mine too — is that the Leveson inquiry was a travesty which is going to have exactly the opposite effect of the one intended. Our corrupt, lying, bullying establishment will find it easier to cover up its many sins; journalists will find it harder to do their jobs; and the public whose ‘interest’ inquiries like this piously profess to ‘serve’ will be denied what they want on the grounds that self-appointed moral arbiters such as Lord Justice Leveson consider it beneath them.

I wonder if any of those urging stronger curbs on the media are aware of just how hard-won are the press freedoms they are now seeking to erode. Does Charlotte Church know that as recently as 1663 you could be hanged, drawn and quartered — as was publisher John Twyn — ‘for infringing the Crown’s monopoly on the licensed press and suggesting the king should be accountable to his subjects’? Does Hugh Grant know that up until the 1780s it was illegal publicly to report what was being said in parliament? Does Steve Coogan know that in the 1820s more than 150 people chose prison rather than give up publishing and distributing The Republican (a samizdat offshoot of the first newspaper to report on the Peterloo -Massacre)?

And where’s Alan Rusbridger, editor of that former champion of the working man the Guardian, on all this? How about Ian Hislop, editor of that scourge of our corrupt establishment, Private Eye? Well, here’s Hislop at the Paul Foot awards praising Davies as ‘a thoroughly deserving winner’. And there’s Rusbridger urging that Leveson and his team ‘can find ways of bolstering all the good that flows from the best journalism while cutting out the worst’.

Ah yes. ‘The worst’: we all disapprove of that. But who exactly is going to be in charge of defining what ‘the worst’ is? If it’s souls as high-minded as the saintly Rusbridger then God help us all. In everything from its wholly uncritical championing of the environmental movement to its relentless campaigning for a larger, more intrusive state, Rusbridger’s activist rag has done infinitely more damage to Britain’s moral, social and economic well-being than anything our tabloid press has managed.

One day, quite soon I imagine, the Guardian and the Observer are going to go under. The reason they’ll go under is not because they’ve been lynched by a celebrity–studded, BBC-endorsed kangaroo court, but because — starved of the backdoor state -funding which has kept them afloat through all those public appointments recruitment ads — they’ve been increasingly exposed to the judgment of the market and found wanting by the only authority which ought to have any say in such matters: the people of Britain, exercising their free will and voting with their wallets.

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