What I’m fighting for

Better newspaper regulation isn’t just a cause for lefties and celebrities. Here’s why

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

I’m often asked why I keep banging on about the press. Am I a lefty? I’m not. I’m not a righty either. I drift. (And in terms of impartiality, by the way, the same goes for Hacked Off – as a campaign group we are determinedly hermaphrodite.)

Am I a muzzler? I really don’t think so. I recoil from the dead hand of the state. I grind my teeth when they swipe my passport at UK immigration.

Do I want to be a moral arbiter? Hardly. Rupert Murdoch recently called me a scumbag. Harsh, but I see where he’s coming from.

So am I a whingeing celeb?

No, in that it really isn’t all about getting caught with my trousers down in 1995. That was a matter of public record, so how could it not be reported? I won’t pretend the press storm was fun, but it was inevitable. And I accept that in my job you often get more attention that you might like.

No also in the sense that this isn’t about trying to get better coverage for myself. If that were my aim, would I really be going toe to toe with British tabloids? They will never forgive me, whatever the outcome.

And no in that it certainly isn’t a craving for attention. I trudge on to Newsnight or Question Time like Saddam to the scaffold. We beg them to use our professors or our lawyers, but they won’t.


But yes, in one sense it is personal. Anyone who finds their phone has been hacked or their flat broken into on the orders of a newspaper; or has had their elderly father with a heart condition repeatedly brought down three flights of stairs to talk to door-stepping reporters, despite polite requests to leave him alone; or has witnessed the children of their (non-showbiz) girlfriend crying with fear in the back of her car as she is chased by photographers; or has seen the press print intimate details from the medical records of the mother of their child without her permission — any normal person in these situations would be angry. You then have a choice. You lie down and take it or you reach for your cricket bat. You try to protect.

And that’s really what I feel about the country. I’ve lived here for 52 years, and although to a greater or lesser extent it’s always been something of a mess, I’m afraid I think God is indeed an Englishman (or Scot, or Ulsterman or even Welsh). We queue, we get the joke, we’re fundamentally decent and we don’t bully. In fact, we have a history of standing up to bullies.

Which is why I’m so sad about what has happened to our newspaper industry. The British press has always been and always should be (and I would leap into Paul Dacre’s ditch to defend these things) impertinent, spiky, nosey and unfawning to power or success or wealth. They have always pissed people off, as they should. But I believe they used to be fundamentally decent. Abducted teenagers, victims of terrorism and bereaved families of servicemen didn’t have their phones hacked for profit. Innocent citizens were not dubbed murderers on front pages while the press regulator did nothing. Policemen, prison officers, NHS staff were not bribed.

That has been happening lately. And abuses are still going on, despite Leveson.

Ask the Bowles family, who this year lost their 11-year-old son in a coach crash in Switzerland. Despite pleas for privacy, their home was besieged, photographs of the boy were lifted from the school trip website without permission and printed in a national newspaper alongside long-lens pictures of his nine-year-old sister as she prepared to lay flowers at the crash site.

I’m not just sad. I’m embarrassed. I hate trying to explain these things to friends from abroad and I hate describing the fear of our politicians — a fear both psephological and personal — in the face of a ruthless press lobby. And I hate saying that for the same reason it is possible nothing will change even now.

So that’s why I’m banging on. And that’s why I’m so worried that we’re about to miss our one chance in a generation to put things right.

We don’t know what Leveson will -recommend. But let’s assume he won’t back yet another helping of self-regulation (the so-called Hunt/Black plan). Let’s say he proposes a new regulator, independent both of the industry and of government, and with the minimum statutory underpinning to make it effective. According to a recent YouGov poll, that would be supported by 77 per cent of the UK population.  Many of the national newspapers, on the other hand, say it will be the end of freedom of the press. But will it really?

It’s similar to how the judiciary, lawyers and doctors are regulated in this country. And none wanted to be regulated, but they’re fine with it now. In terms of regulation it would be nothing in comparison to how Ofcom or the BBC Trust regulate the broadcasting industries, and it’s hard to find a broadcast journalist who complains of being chilled or constrained.

The Finns have a 2003 law giving people a right of reply and giving publications a duty to correct. It also makes publications nominate one person as the ‘responsible editor’ at any time, so that ‘I was on holiday’ is never an excuse. How muzzling have these measures been? On the World Press Freedom Index, Finland has come top in eight of the last ten years.

What I (and Hacked Off) campaign for is only this: that the press should obey the law and comply consistently with a fair and decent code of practice. Only that. If we detected even a bat’s squeak of genuine threat to public interest journalism we would pack it in. In fact, we also campaign for public interest defences in law for journalists in libel, bribery and other cases. We want more investigative journalism, not less. We want journalists to be free to speak their minds, unconstrained by their corporate masters. That’s why we share platforms with the NUJ.

So we’re not muzzlers. We’re not lefties. And we’re not the wicked Goliath of the establishment taking on the plucky David of the press. It’s the other way round. They are the Establishment. They have effectively run the country for the past 40 years. They are Goliath. We need help.


This article is based on a speech given by the author to the Tory Reform Group.

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Show comments
  • Sarah

    “They are the Establishment. They have effectively run the country for the past 40 years. They are Goliath. ”

    So of course they will will use their weapon of choice, propaganda, to defend their power base.

    Freedom doesn’t come without responsibility and consequences. You’re doing the right thing.

  • Charlotte

    A brilliant and direct article Hugh.

  • mairemd

    Thanks Hugh, great article, beautifully and succinctly written – will circulate it to my journalism students to use both as an argument, and as a model.

    • Austin Barry

      Blimey, hold the hyperbole.

      I suspect you’re blinded by Mr Grant’s neon-lit celebrity.

      I’d rather have a robust and slightly dodgy press than one prancing within the constraints of a mincing code of fairness and decency.

      And I would hate Hugh to become the Mary Whitehouse of his generation.

    • Wilhelm

      In 1994 in a GQ article Hugh Grant said he liked reading the dirt on celebrities, now he’s turned into Sir Lancelot.

      Ps. I suspect he changed his views on the press when he practiced an act of miscegenation ( some people might find that rather disagreeable, I didn’t know Hugh was into that sort of thing ) with a woman in Los Angeles

      • Austin Barry

        Well, to be fair to Hugh, the soul destroying hinterland of LA would probably drive us all to a spot of vehicular miscegenation. In fact, the thought often crosses my mind on the M6 as it nears Stoke-on-Trent.

      • RHGCay

        Racist. Bigot. Pompous Ass. Have another Gin and Tonic old boy.

        • Wilhelm

          That’s not very polite, is it ? calling Hugh Grant a racist, bigot, pompous ass, but thanks for your input anyway.

      • FrederickForeskin

        In 1994 I was doing 5g of speed, a oz of weed and up to ten pills every weekend. I don’t do anywhere near that amount now.
        As for him bumming the bird in LA, well, that’s up to him really and it does confirm my long held belief that Liz Hurley must be one boring fuck.

  • M Exla

    We have a history of standing up to bullies? Perhaps a brief history of British colonialism is needed.

  • Adam

    Well written, also rather convincing.

  • Kevin

    it would be nothing in comparison to how Ofcom or the BBC Trust regulate the broadcasting industries

    Even if it did compare with these it would, in my experience, be utterly feckless. BBC’s guidelines seem to centre on the subjective term “generally accepted standards”. And the more you broadcast the bigotry and ignore any complaints, the more “generally accepted” it becomes.

  • Not quiet PC!!! Darling.

    Have a history standing up to bullies so ……what’s happend? Can’t wear a cross at work and ask if anyone would like a prayer said for them in a ..so called …Judian Christian country any more. Standing up to bullies…yeah right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1809197624 Sarah Gillen

    Very strong and articulate article, I agree 100% with your views

  • Jules

    Who has elected Hugh Grant to anything? Why does is view get all this publicity?

    I do not want press regulation, I want an American style first Amendment protecting free speech.

    • Sarah

      Tough luck, you haven’t got one.

    • grellis

      What – so only the ‘elected’ can speak? Not a very consistent complaint from someone who claims to be all for free speech!

    • Mick Griffin

      Who elected Murdoch to anything ?Have Hugh Grant`s views been covered in the British press?How do you suppose that free speech is threatened?What will newspapers be prevented from doing if the Hacked Off proposals are introduced?

    • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

      “Why does his view get all this publicity?” – he’s a celeb, the media are interested.

      “I do not want press regulation.” – but you are complaining about the things they choose to cover!

  • Mike

    Hugh, once Britain is no longer is a centre of libel tourism; we have a Bill of Rights guaranteeing free speech includng the right to say that which may offend people and; removal of blasphemy laws , then we can consider controls on the press.

  • D Short

    “Caught with trousers down”? Hardly an accurate description of asking for a car seat blowjob from a sleazy American streetwalker. I suspect the Spectator only gives this odious, third-rate one trick pony actor space because the boss, Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neil, likes ingratiating himself with that sort of person.

    • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

      I think it’s a perfect description!

  • Sarah

    The press, including Spectator columnists keep wheeling out the threat of a media controlled by the state or the venal and corrupt. Which I think is disingenuous. This is about public accountability, not accountability to government. And it’s about attempting to reign in the venality and corruption of the powerful, unelected press and media lobbies.

  • http://twitter.com/etonmessuk etonmess

    Here here.

  • Guest

    A bit weedy. ‘Help!’ A very rich man having a good opportunistic blub and obliging his own personal problems and their solutions on everyone. No one says the press should not be held to account in a much better way, but why the agenda of this foot stamping, face pulling Fotherington Thomas privileged namby who is just using people for his own agenda? And what about the long term effects of this agenda. It is the little people and the good journalists who will probably get crushed. *Worried about this*

  • D Short

    Grant should stand for public office. ‘Just for Men’ for everyone! No more grey! Brillo Pad Neil, who probably has shares in the product, would approve!

  • Sarge

    Well Hugh, you seemed to have no problem using the press to promote you career and stimulating interest in you; beware your bedfellows -if you use the media,they will use you. Once the genie is out of the bottle you have a problem.

  • AY

    yet another example of domination of cheap agendas in the public life.

    he’s a “victim” of “hone phacking”, noble fighter for right cause..

    there are real victims and fighters in this world.

    there are real suffernig and everyday human loss.

    any dirty noname jihadi boy in Syria who fights for his despicable cause deserves more respect than this metrosexual inflated-ego nihilist pathetic shrimp.

  • Watcher

    Couldn’t agree more, just look how the BBC; uses it’s cloak of independence to mask it’s own relentlessly self serving propaganda. Public interest never extends to areas within the state broadcaster, dare to mention it and you are attcking their ‘independence’.

  • mary

    isnt it always wierd how thatone dreamis duch a (are you playingpixal silly again.god i havnt been this alive and completley besotted and i gonna go for it aroused for so many years) the ahhh you know i want it to more so its why i have endured everywaking min for forgot how long waiting for a gut feeling the opportunity was going to appear and the agony of what was happening was torture thinking my son was not gonna be ok whatever he did )a kindred spirit was workin on a way to provide that window and i was goin to keep looking for the que knowing the usual tosh trying to even mention such a thing gets was gonna stick out proud to me and cause all the usual shit for you. wow i head over heels now and we never said word to this day directly awsome

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.maloney.39904 John Maloney

    Mr. Grant you have sold your soul.