Those pushing for press regulation claim to have the people on their side, and since the phone-hacking scandal, Hacked Off has posed as warriors for the victims of press intrusion, standing up to the big media barons. Today, MPs vote on amendments to the Data Protection Bill that would effectively force publications into state-backed regulation for the first time in 300 years. The amendments, tabled by Labour’s Tom Watson and Ed Miliband, would also kickstart the second part of the Leveson inquiry. Watson claims this is ‘for the many, not the few’. But if that's really the case, why are these plans being sneaked into obscure amendments to a dry-sounding piece of data legislation?
Attempts to pass tougher press laws have become increasingly covert and underhand in recent years. Watson’s amendment revives something called Section 40 – a measure, originally drafted as part of the Crime and Courts Act, that would force publications to sign up to a state-backed regulator, or else be liable to pay legal costs in cases brought against them, even if the plaintiffs lose. It is an affront not only to press freedom, but also natural justice, which is part of the reason why the Tories dropped it last year. It took the unelected House of Lords to resurrect it in the form of an amendment to the Data Protection Bill. It was then defeated in the Commons. But not to be put off, Watson is giving it another shot.
Section 40 is an attempt to force regulation on an industry that, from the Sun to the Guardian, has made it clear it doesn’t want it. In the wake of Leveson, the Press Recognition Panel was set up under Royal Charter, to give state approval to new press regulators. So far the only state-approved press body to be established has been Impress. It is funded by the family trust of millionaire Max Mosley, who has had a long-running open beef with the tabloids since the News of the World exposed his involvement in an orgy. Impress is staffed by sneering hackademics, some of whom have posted on Twitter about wanting to ban the Daily Mail. And Mosley, lest we forget, has given £500,000 to Tom Watson’s office. Also joining the rogues gallery that is the pro-press regulation lobby is the tabloid-burned actor and longtime Hacked Off supporter, Hugh Grant, who takes to Westminster today in a last-ditch attempt to lobby MPs.
So: unelected Lords? Check. Snobby academics? Check. Luvvy celebs with a grudge? Check. Millionaires with a grudge? Check. Politicians funded by millionaires with a grudge? Check. This doesn’t sound much like people power at all. The victims of press intrusion and phone-hacking, the issue that sparked the Leveson inquiry in the first place, are now a distant memory. It is clear that those victims were only ever human shields, behind which a far broader and more illiberal agenda was being pushed.
This is also an agenda that the public have explicitly rejected. In 2016, the government opened a consultation into press regulation, asking voters whether Section 40 should be implemented and whether Leveson II should commence. Spiked, the Spectator were among those publications who called on their readers to issue an emphatic 'No' on both counts; and they did, in their thousands. Out of a huge 174,730 responses to the consultation, 79 per cent rejected Section 40 and 66 per cent rejected Leveson II. Yet today the Commons is voting on precisely those measures, for the second time in a year, against a backdrop of Brexit battles and cross-party scandals that have pushed this already obscure-sounding vote further down the news agenda.
Of course, none of this should surprise us. Calls to shackle the press have always been motored by the elite’s disdain for readers of the popular press and its desire to shield itself from the glare of public scrutiny. From kings, bishops and lords in the past to MPs, celebrities and, er, lords in the present, those with power and influence have always preferred a tame press. When the radical, muckraking journalist, John Wilkes, was sent to the Tower in 1771 for daring to report on parliament, 50,000 Londoners besieged Westminster, chanting ‘Wilkes and liberty’. Things are different today: journalists are just as mistrusted as the politicians they report on. But the fact remains that any fetters on the press will always be in the name of the few, not the many. The question for MPs today is: whose side are they really on?
Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked