I learned on Wednesday that a row is exploding over freedom of the press … in Australia. Surely some mistake. Australia is refreshingly open and its newspapers are free to say, often rudely, whatever they like. In fact, they are among the world’s the most tightly regulated, standing 26th and 29th respectively in the Reporters Without Borders censorship index — way behind Jamaica, Costa Rica and Namibia. Where, I wonder, will Britain stand after the events of this week?
Much has changed in Oz since I spent my first day there as a Ten Pound Pom, looking comical in a grey suit on Bondi beach in midsummer, almost half a century ago. I left a stagnant Britain, beset by industrial strife and a Tory government whose only plan was to manage our decline. I returned in 1978, in time for the winter of discontent, with union-dominated Labour apparently determined to finish the job. Now the Tories are back, sort of, Britain is sliding once more into decline and Labour is shaping up to form the most union-dominated government in history. Is it time to emigrate again?
In those days, it was White Australia. Today it is a truly Asian nation whose migrants from China and Vietnam have helped double the population to 23 million. Whole suburbs are miniature Hong Kongs and Saigons, with streets named in oriental script and reeking of orange blossom and Cantonese cuisine. Since my last visit, the Sunburned Country has emerged from a ten-year drought which raised alarm over global warming. Today the dams are overflowing and rivers in full spate. Australians who prayed for rain are praying for it to stop. Having been soaked by the daily deluge in Sydney, we escaped to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, just making it there before stormy weather closed in. The return flight was aborted when the heavens stayed open, and we were put on a bus to Brisbane. At least it was warm rain.
Back in London, our own battle for press freedom erupted as David Cameron walked out of midnight talks with Ed Miliband, reiterating that a new press law was a Rubicon he was ‘not prepared to cross’. It ended at 2 a.m. on Monday in a shoddy compromise with Mr Cameron out of his depth and floundering midstream.
At 7 a.m., I was sitting in Today’s radio car waiting to blame Hacked Off for wrongly accusing journalists of deleting Milly Dowler’s voicemails. Instead I listened to reports that newspaper editors had triumphed in the midnight talks. We had won our campaign to stop politicians meddling with the news. Downing Street rang to insist Cameron had won a great victory for press freedom. Labour had shifted ground ‘massively’.
The miserable truth emerged piecemeal as I stood on the Green in Westminster with the BBC’s Norman Smith. Newspaper editors had in fact been barred from the talks — while Hacked Off were invited in. As I went on air, Norman showed me Labour’s royal charter clause — the ‘dab of statute’ which leaves newspapers trussed like turkeys under a press law by any other name. The Prime Minister had not attended the talks. Instead, he sent Oliver Letwin, one of the Tories’ most incompetent flappers, into the negotiating chamber. Letwin was alone against a team including Miliband, Clegg, Harman, her spad, Labour legal heavyweight Lord Falconer and Labour chief whip Rosie Winterton — plus four from Hacked Off. He never stood a chance. At 2 a.m. he signed what may be our death warrant.
A rare bright spot came later as I was on 5 Live debating the sins of the press with one of its victims. I suggested the victims had in fact won hands down, with newspapers conceding just about every point raised by Leveson. Braced for the venomous response I usually get on Twitter, I was relieved to hear Graham Foulkes, whose son David was killed on 7/7, agreeing with every word. It was Graham who refused to attend Leveson because it had been ‘hijacked by celebrities’. He was right then — and he’s right today.
Off to Moorfields for an eye test. Three hours hanging around, while the office is seeking 300 words on the day’s events. I file on the iPhone, whose battery is almost extinct. The good news is that I probably don’t have glaucoma after all.
Trevor Kavanagh is a former political editor of the Sun.