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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012