The Press and Leveson, it will be war

The introduction to a Penguin Special on why Britain does not have the press it deserves and what should be done - in the lead up to the Leveson Report. 

Hugh Grant
13 October 2012

This is the introduction to Everybody's Hacked Off: why we don't have the press we deserve and what to do about it - a Penguin Special by Brian Cathcart on sale as an eBook for £1.99 

As I write this, it is twelve months since the beginning of the Leveson Inquiry and fourteen months since the Milly Dowler revelations, and there are some who say it’s all old news, overkill, has taken too long, cost too much, lost its direction, lost its momentum. I don’t agree. I think this is where it gets really interesting. I think we are at last approaching a defining moment – defining for the British press, of course, but also defining in terms of individuals. In the next six months we will learn who a lot of people really are.

I imagine that when this short book is published Lord Justice Leveson will still be writing his report. We don’t know what he will say, but we do know what he has heard over the past twelve months. He’s heard about a nightmarish pattern of mistreatment of innocent people, of the cynical covering up of wrongdoing, of the industrial-scale quarrying of personal information from confidential databases, of the corruption of public officials and the intimidation of politicians – all of it in pursuit, not of news that might serve the public interest, but of corporate profit. And he heard how at least four of our last five governments have not only done nothing about any of these things, but have bent over backwards to oblige the corporations and individual owners of those papers that were most guilty.

Let us say that, on the basis of this evidence, Leveson recommends that the press should no longer be the only industry in this country with the power to damage citizens’ lives that is regulated solely by itself. Let’s say he recommends that the Press Complaints Commission must go, replaced not by the industry’s suggested son-of-PCC (rejected by all victims), but by a proper regulator that is independent of the industry and of government. One that has a new and beefed-up code of practice and, for the first time, real teeth to sanction transgressions of that code. What will happen then?

It will be war. And here’s how the battlefield will look.

In the middle will be the prize: the politicians with the power to either enact Leveson’s recommendations or kick them into the long grass. Last July, after the Dowler revelations, these politicians all talked a good game, but last June, pre-Dowler, a lot of them were sipping champagne on Rupert Murdoch’s lawn. There are notable and noble exceptions, but a great many of them, when the crunch comes, could go either way.

Fighting for their votes on one side will be the tabloid press (backed by The Times and the Telegraph), doing everything in its power to prevent itself being decently regulated, to preserve its lucrative business model, to prolong a three-decade honeymoon of relative immunity from the law, to preserve its power to appropriate the rights of citizens for corporate gain, to eff ectively tell elected politicians how they want the country run.

Their power is daunting. They have the front pages, editorials and opinion pieces, the hatchet jobs and the editorialized news reporting. They have people of influence who owe them favours or are paid by them, or might in the future (if they toe the line) be paid by them. They also have people of influence who fear them, who fear their vengeance in terms of exposure of personal lives or loss of electoral support. They have huge sums of money (for all the talk about papers dying, the major tabloids still turn healthy profits) to spend on the best lawyers, lobbyists, dirt-diggers, private investigators. They have a power so great that few in recent British history have been able to withstand it.

On the other side you have the few voices in parliament who have spoken out all along against press abuses, such as Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and Lord Fowler. You have the lawyers who pioneered the first civil cases on hacking (and who were duly hacked and put under surveillance for their troubles). You have the Guardian and, on the whole, the Independent, with their modest circulations. And you have a few small campaign groups, of which one is Hacked Off .

Hacked Off is an unlikely bunch. For the past year it has had at its core three balanced and principled academics, a few clever lawyers, one passionate, hyperactive ex-LibDem MP, two horrified journalists, one cross film actor and one livid comedian. It campaigned for a full public inquiry into phone hacking and thanks to the help and bravery of the Dowler family it managed to get one. It also helped write the terms of reference.

It raises its hand when current affairs broadcasters are looking for someone to debate with a tabloid editor or apologist. (The system is that the broadcaster – Newsnight, Today, whatever – then refuses to book the academics or the ex-MP who are most expert and eloquent, and insist instead on the actor or comedian because they are better for the ratings. Then they like to demand of the actor and comedian, on air, ‘Why should anyone listen to you?’ Or ‘Isn’t this all just about celebrities?’)

Everyone (except our lone employee) has had other jobs to do. Corners of pubs and coffee shops were our meeting rooms. Some finance has come from charitable trusts and some from individual donations, large and small. As I write we are trying to morph into something more professional to meet the huge challenge ahead. Donations would be very welcome.

I believe that Lord Justice Leveson will recommend a new regulator and that the battle that follows will be massively uneven. This is why it will be as much a defining moment for individuals such as you, reading this, now, as it is for the future of the press. We think that while the press should and must be always be, in the best British tradition, free, spiky, nosey, irreverent, sceptical and never fawning to power or success, it should no longer be, in a very unBritish way, cowardly, manipulative, greedy, bullying, immune to law and intoxicated with its own power. No one wants a state-run media, but what we have had for thirty-odd years is media-run state. If you agree with that and you stand up and say so over the coming months you may make yourself a target. But if you agree with it and say nothing, or, worse, you disguise your fear of saying something with pious and convenient posturing about free speech as though you owned the concept (I believe the verb is ‘to gove’), you will be safe. And if you do that, nothing will change. So it’s a defining moment, for all of us.

Please define yourself on our side. This book sets out the case for change, but just reading it is not enough. At the end you will find suggestions for small things you can do to help make change happen and to show the world that, like me and like the others in this campaign, you also are hacked off .

Finally, four key facts about Brian Cathcart, the author of this book:

  1. Unlike some of us, his motives can never (albeit unfairly) be ascribed to any personal grudge or run-in with the press.
  2. They are purely to do with outrage at what happened to the profession he loves, believes in, teaches and has excelled at.
  3. He fools many with his air of the mild-mannered academic. Don’t be fooled.
  4. His book (this book) says everything I have said above, but much, much better.
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