The chilling effects of Lord Leveson are already being felt in every newsroom in the country — and it is the rich, powerful and influential who are reaping the benefits. I know this because after 17 years working in national newspapers, the last seven of which I spent on the Daily Mail, I have just walked away from a job I loved. The decision — one of the hardest of my life — was driven partly by a desire to spend more time with my young family. But a major factor was the menacing post-Leveson culture in which journalists are already forced to operate.
Few journalists will talk about it, but the rules of the game have changed. If you inquire about certain establishment figures or MPs, they make use of the tools they possess to intimidate you. Our political elite are using these tools all the time and appear worringly confident that the £5.6 million Leveson inquiry will hand them even more.
There is a reason why international libel lawyers refer to London as a ‘town named sue’. It’s hard for me to detail examples without running the risk of landing The Spectator in court: I had a good instance of a powerful person suppressing unpleasant information about himself from the public, but lawyers advised me that it would be too risky too print, since the person in question is known to be so litigious.
That’s how it works. Take, though, the case of Chris Huhne’s partner, Carina Trimingham, who took the Daily Mail to court for harassment because the paper had repeatedly referred to her as a bisexual — which, by the way, she is. She lost her case.
I was lucky to work for a newspaper with the time and money to fight such cases: not all journalists are so lucky. Britain has become a place where the rich, famous and well-connected can take newspapers to court (with the help of no-win, no-fee lawyers) for writing the truth.
Before the Leveson inquiry, I had received less than a dozen PCC complaints in my career and never had one upheld. But when I left, complaints were coming in at a rate of at least one a month. All required mini-investigations. Even foreign dictatorships know how to frighten Fleet Street. The last complaint I was asked to deal with was from a dictator, the King of Bahrain, who didn’t like the way I referred to criticism of his regime following the deaths of 40 people in anti-government protests.
Like 99.99 per cent of British journalists, I never hacked a phone or bribed a public official. During my long career in the House of Commons, I tried my utmost to be fair. If a story didn’t quite stack up, I would abandon it. A small handful of journalists did hire private investigators to do some horrific things, but there are laws in this country to deal with them.
How do we know that Lord Leveson’s report will encourage the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories? Because the prospect of it has done so already. How do we know that an elite will attempt to decide what it is appropriate for the rest of us to read about over our cornflakes? Because Leveson is already doing exactly that. This is the judge who read a 200-word article in the Times about how The Thick of It was planning to satirise him in one episode — and promptly asked the editor of that paper whether it was ‘appropriate’ for him to run the piece. It is all too easy to guess what a judge with such an attitude to newspapers will do for press freedom.
Kirsty Walker is an associate director at iNHouse Communications.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012