Some who claim to be on the liberal and reasonable side of argument can, on occasion, behave in the most perverse manner, and so it is with the Observer’s pundit Nick Cohen, who today has brought to mind J K Galbraith’s recollection of a famous law: “A J Liebling of the New Yorker magazine formulated what he called Liebling’s Law. It held, roughly, that if a man of adequately complex mind proceeds in a sufficiently perverse way, he can succeed in kicking himself in his own ass out the door into the street”.
Cohen today has started with admirable reality, describing the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and musing “It’s one of the Enlightenment’s best-written restraints on power and, God knows, we could use it in the UK”. The equivalent of the US First Amendment was proposed as part of the Leveson recommendations. Remember that. Because Cohen won’t.
He also summarises the current situation with getting redress for press misbehaviour rather well: “money tilts the scales of justice. Unless you have a straightforward case, few lawyers will offer a ‘no win, no fee’ deal. A wealthy media organisation can threaten you with a costs bill of £1m or more if you lose. Equally, plutocrats can threaten increasingly impoverished newspapers with costs they cannot afford”. The “Maxwell” litigant.
And then comes the “sufficiently perverse” behaviour: “Instead of cutting the costs of libel and privacy actions and opening the courts to all, Lord Justice Leveson responded to the hacking scandal by beginning a process where rich men can fund ‘independent’ press regulators”. No mention of low-cost arbitration, which allows those wronged to seek redress for a cost of no more than £100. THAT is cutting costs.
No, Cohen is living up to Liebling’s Law in spades as he continues “The Formula One tycoon Max Mosley obliged”. Not quite true, is it? The Alexander Mosley charitable trust paid over a sum to another charitable trust, which then paid independent regulator IMPRESS. The process was designed to ensure that neither Max Mosley, nor any other individual, could exercise control over IMPRESS. But do go on.
“No free newspaper can submit to a state-backed regulator and none has agreed to co-operate”. There is no state-backed regulator, there is no process of submission, and so there is never going to be any co-opting of newspapers. As Leveson envisaged, publishers are entitled to make a choice. But then he loses it completely, with “The liberal-left hate the Mail and the Murdoch press for reasons I understand”.
Try phone hacking, blagging, surveillance, harassment, monstering, lying, smearing, defaming, mail tampering, intrusive photography, waste bin rifling, publication of personal information, revelation of houses lived in and cars driven, use of those expensive lawyers to deter legal actions, and any other invasion of privacy I missed. Have another go.
“They don’t care that the Guardian and Private Eye, which exposed the hacking scandal, along with every other decent news organisation, won’t submit to Mosley’s regulation either”. Mosley isn’t proposing or offering any regulation, so this is no surprise. And then the great Nick Cohen kicks himself in his own ass out the door into the street: “The state can license a plutocrat to establish a regulator”.
Max Mosley - presumably the “plutocrat” of Cohen’s imagination - did not establish a regulator. The state did not license him, nor anyone else, to do so. IMPRESS was established well before the Alexander Mosley charitable trust became involved. And there is yet more perverse behaviour: “Publishers who refuse to co-operate will face costs they can’t afford to meet”. Co-operate with whom? What is he rambling on about?
But then, at long last we reach the peroration, as Cohen proclaims “Wolfish strongmen all over the world will watch Britain’s experiment with punishing journalists for reporting accurately with fascination. As Trump has shown, we are their inspiration and their justification”. Yes, so perverse that Cohen is now suggesting some kind of link between Hacked Off, IMPRESS, and Combover Crybaby Donald Trump.
Yes, yes, I know that Hacked Off was around for years before The Donald announced his run for the White House, and that IMPRESS was likewise around long before the funding deal that guaranteed its future - and its ability to offer that low-cost arbitration service that Cohen doesn’t want to talk about - but there is Nick Cohen, protesting meekly that accurate journalism is about to be punished out of existence.
Sadly for him, it isn’t, Hacked Off and IMPRESS aren’t linked to Donald Trump, and that First Amendment freedom he so envies has been offered to him and his fellow hacks and pundits, only for them to shoo it away. Thus Nick Cohen has demonstrated that he is the premier modern exponent of Liebling’s Law.
But he got a generous paycheque for his excursion into perversion, so that’s all right, then.