spiked, 19 March 2013

Everything about the press-muzzling campaign group Hacked Off winds me up. From its use of victims of press intrusion as ventriloquist’s dummies for its own censorious agenda to its naked snobbish disdain for any newspaper with a red top and a mass readership, there’s nothing about HO I don’t dislike. So why does the current media gunning for these tabloid-loathing moaners make me uncomfortable? Why does even the haranguing of Hugh Grant, HO’s celeb frontman, whom I didn’t even like when he was just a floppy-haired regular in rubbish Richard Curtis movies, leave me cold?

It’s because HO is clearly being turned into an Aunt Sally, upon which people who support press freedom, or think they support press freedom, or want to support press freedom, can vent their frustration at the hollowing out of that freedom over the past decade and more. The stinging depiction of Grant as the single-handed destroyer of 320 years’ worth of an unlicensed, relatively free press in Britain, and the branding of his academic scriptwriters as ‘suburban Mussolinis’ who are holding the political class to ransom, springs from an instinct to hold one discrete, nameable group of people responsible for what has in fact been a long drawn-out intellectual abandonment and denigration of the ideal of press freedom. Alarmed by the ease with which, on their watch, the freedom of the press became a negotiable commodity, thinkers and commentators now irrationally rail against Hugh and Co, blaming these ‘zealots’ for ‘wrecking’ the liberty to publish.

It is extraordinary how quickly the anti-HO consensus has taken shape in recent weeks. These campaigners who once got a relatively easy ride in the press, certainly in the high-minded, mis-monikered ‘liberal’ sections of it, are now branded fascists in the Observer and ‘hate-filled… left ideologues’ who have ‘conquered the last remaining bastion of free thinking’ in the Daily Mail. They are mercilessly mocked by the Twitterati, that most faithful repeater of media-okayed conformist thinking. Reading the coverage of yesterday’s right royal stitch-up of press freedom - where it turned out that politicians who were said to be at ideological loggerheads over the future of the press all actually agree that it must be more firmly policed and punished – you could be forgiven for thinking Hugh Grant was singularly to blame for the entire debacle. We’re told Hacked Off ‘hijacked’ the political sphere, ‘bullied’ politicians, ‘blackmailed’ Labour leader Ed Miliband, and pretty much authored the bizarre compromise whereby David Cameron’s non-statutory Royal Charter on muzzling the press will now be underpinned by sort-of statute.

To be clear – there’s no doubt HO is influential and that over the past year it has had great leeway to set the agenda on the press’s future and fortunes. But it has derived this influence, or what some call its politics-wrecking power, not from the strength of its own arguments (which are opportunistic and flabby), or from any mystical powers of persuasion or superb networking skills, but rather from the political class’s own openness to the idea of shackling the press. That is, HO didn’t smash down doors on Whitehall or in the Commons – it was invited in by members of a political class who are cavalier about the ideal of press freedom and who were instinctively on the lookout for readymade arguments, preferably victim-fronted ones, with which they might tame the tabloids they so despise. The claim that HO ‘hijacked’ or ‘conquered’ the political sphere wildly exaggerates its powers, while vastly underestimating the political sphere’s own taste and even thirst for press censorship. Ironically, the same harebrained thing that was once said about the so-called Murdoch Empire – that it exerted a secretive and awesome influence over British politics and society – is now said about HO, including by critics of that old caricature of the Murdoch Empire’s power.

The one-dimensional HO haters never seem to notice the chasm-sized contradiction between their descriptions of HO (it is made up of ‘tarnished celebrities and small-town academics’, they say) and the power they claim it wields (apparently it is ‘dictating’ government policy). That such a small, shabby outfit has managed to influence politicians and legislators surely says more about the censorious opportunism of today’s deracinated political elite than it does about the Svengali-like charms of Hugh Grant (it is now 20 long years since Hugh could make both Andie MacDowell and Kirstin Scott Thomas fall for him).

Moreover, the Hacked Off sentiment didn’t emerge out of thin air; it wasn’t thunk up by a gaggle of lower middle-class Mussolinis over lukewarm tea in one of their small-town universities. Rather, HO and its outlook are best seen as the end products of, most immediately, the anti-tabloid hysteria that followed the revelations of phone-hacking at the News of the World and the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry in 2011, and, more broadly, of the intellectual discomfort with unfettered press freedom that has been rife in British public life for years now. In promoting the idea that words hurt people, that the press has too much influence over politicians and the public, that tabloids are scuzzy, that tabloid readers are easily duped, that unchecked freedom to publish is the enemy of rational, enlightened debate, and that the feelings of victims ought to trump the liberties of the mob and certainly of corporations, Hacked Off represents a distilled version of the prejudices that have been widespread in political circles for near-on two decades, and which the people who now pose as implacable critics of HO failed so miserably to tackle. HO is a monster of our illiberal age’s own making, a beast springing from the bowels of mainstream society’s and the intellectual elite’s abandonment of the virtues of freedom of speech, expression and the press

If the depiction of HO as creator of today’s censorious climate was only misleading, that would be bad enough. But it’s far worse than that. Attacking HO has now become a way for politicians and serious media outlets to depict themselves as liberal by contrasting themselves with tabloid-hatin’ Hugh Grant, even as they usher in or acquiesce to new forms of press regulation. That is, in denouncing the extremism of Hacked Off and its Mussolini-like backers, respectable thinkers and politicos can depict their own proposals for reprimanding the press as more ‘free’, more enlightened, more down-to-earth than the shrill demands for the straitjacketing of the press made by Grant and the rest.

So David Cameron quite self-consciously juxtaposed his plans for press regulation – which involve implementing pretty much every screw-tightening, editor-slapping Leveson proposal – with the shriller cries for a total statutory clampdown on unruly tabloids emanating from HO and its dwindling band of media cheerleaders. And various newspapers have launched ostentatious assaults on HO to try to disguise their own acceptance of the Leveson outlook and of the idea that press freedom is not an unshakeable democratic right but rather a potentially dangerous tool, something that should be kept in check by outsiders, whether civil-society do-gooders or royal charters. Leveson has almost been snuck into law, into mainstream thought, by people who are effectively and very cynically saying, ‘Well, what we’re doing is not as bad as what Hugh Grant wants us to do. We’re not as censorious as him.’ Yes, Hacked Off wanted stiff regulation; but right now, attacking Hacked Off has become the fastest, surest route to implementing a seemingly more acceptable form of regulation that gets dolled up as a slightly lesser evil than what HO was hollering for.

In his 1946 essay ‘The prevention of literature’, George Orwell said: ‘In England, the immediate enemies of truthfulness, and hence of freedom of thought, are the press lords, the film magnates, and the bureaucrats, but on a long view the weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves is the most serious symptom of all.’ Today, we might say that groups like Hacked Off, and the political class’s openness to their arguments, represent the most immediate threat to press freedom – but in the long term, it has been the intellectual classes’ casual abandonment of the ideal of free speech and their depiction of an uncontrolled press as a foul and great evil which has allowed the authorities now to assume something like sovereignty over the world of publishing.

Read more of my articles for spiked and other publications here.