The Australian, 1 December 2012
LORD Justice Brian Leveson, the man who was outrageously tasked with single-handedly deciding the fate of the British press, has finally spoken. And it isn’t good.
Unless, that is, you’re a member of the motley crew of censorious celebs and tabloid-loathing politicians who for the past year have been bowing and scraping at Leveson’s feet and pleading with him to de-fang the red-top press. If you’re one of them, you’ll be delighted with the weasel-like censorship-by-another-name that Leveson in his allegedly infinite wisdom has come up with.
Leveson’s proposals amount to this: certain sections of the British press (not the sections read by Leveson or his friends, you understand) have caused “havoc” in recent decades, and therefore we need a new, proactive, muscular press watchdog, one that “has teeth”, in the words of Leveson’s fan club in the chattering classes.
Why teeth? So it can bite, of course: maul those who fall short of producing what Leveson and chums describe as “journalism in the public interest”.
This “new and tough regulator” must have “statutory underpinning”, says Leveson - that is, it must be set up and overseen through legislation enacted by parliament. This will tighten the apron strings between Britain’s press and Britain’s rulers in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1695, when the Crown’s licensing of the press was done away with following much heated agitation by haters of censorship.
The new toothy watchdog must be independent of the press, says the one-man Vatican Council that is Leveson. He has decreed that a majority of the people who will steer this snapping watchdog as it sniffs around the gutters of the havoc-wreaking press must be “independent of the press”.
Some of them can be former journalists, he says, generously, but most of them should definitely be non-journalists. Lawyers, perhaps, like Leveson himself; we all know what an honest and upstanding profession that is.
Newspapers effectively will be strongarmed into signing up to the watchdog, into baring their bums to its teeth. Leveson suggests having a branding system, whereby papers that agree to submit to the new system will be awarded a “recognised brand of trusted journalism” and, by extension, those that don’t will be branded untrustworthy, foul, blasphemers against the Lord (Leveson).
Alarmingly, not content with suggesting the press jump through a hoop of his making, Leveson wants to rap politicians’ knuckles, too. He says all senior politicians should regularly publish details of meetings with journalists and editors, including private, social meetings.
This is simultaneously an assault on the right of journalists to keep their sources private (hacks often legitimately want to keep their meetings with politicians secret), and an assault on the basic right of politicians to have dinner, drinks or a chinwag with anyone they damn well like, journalist or non-journalist.
Yet, having proposed all this, Leveson then has the gall to refer to his new system as one of “self-regulation”, as if all he is doing is encouraging the press to regulate itself.
In fact, he uses the phrase “independent self-regulation” to describe his preferred method of keeping the rowdy press in check. Yet anyone who speaks English and is over the age of, say, 10 will know that “independent self-regulation” is a spectacular contradiction in terms. Either the regulation of the press is independent of the press, in which case it is external regulation, or it is carried out by the press itself, in which case it may legitimately be called self-regulation.
Leveson’s proposal is, of course, for external regulation, for state regulation in essence, for regulation underpinned by laws passed by politicians.
Yet there is a weaselness to the language he and his cheerleaders use. Unwilling to utter the words “state regulation”, they instead say this is “independent” regulation with a “dab of statute” (in the words of The Guardian). Uncomfortable with admitting their proposed system is essentially law-backed monitoring of the press, they say it has “statutory underpinnings” or a “statutory basis”. Freaked out by the possibility of appearing to be forcing newspapers to sign up, they instead talk in polite, PC tones about awarding or denying branding for “trusted journalism”.
But strip away the obfuscating lingo, rip off the shroud of linguistic respectability that Leveson has draped over his proposals, and it’s clear that what is being proposed here is the rewinding of British history, the return to a regime where agents empowered by the state get to lecture and hector the press and to decree which bits of it can be “trusted” and which cannot. It is censoriousness in disguise, a new form of licensing of the press, and we can only hope the British parliament says a big fat “no” to it.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.