Those following the saga of the press establishment’s attempts to derail Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry - promised to victims of press intrusion by Young Dave before he flounced out of Downing Street and left the task of salvaging the sunken ship of state to Theresa May - may have seen some highly creative arguments being peddled by the Fourth Estate and its pals, claiming free speech is somehow under attack.
There was, though, as Captain Blackadder might have observed, only one thing wrong with this idea - it was bollocks. So despite Daily Mail columnist John Humphreys claiming on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that a press regulator like IMPRESS, which is truly independent of editorial, proprietorial or Government interference, was some kind of “state regulation”, no such thing is being proposed - by anyone.
The press establishment is playing the victim in no style at all, and much of the victimhood posture comes from the push for the Government to finally implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, and get on with Leveson Part 2, which will examine the relationship between the press and the Police (it will not, as has been claimed, rake over the phone hacking scandal once more). It is being claimed that press freedom is under threat.
To this end, a natty graphic has been cobbled together showing - albeit crudely - the position of the UK in the World Press Freedom Index. Last year, the UK was 38th in this index - worse than Costa Rica, Jamaica, Uruguay, Surinam, Ghana, Samoa, Chile, Cape Verde, Belize and Tonga. We do worse than both Spain (34th) and Portugal (23rd), which were, not so long ago (until the mid 1970s), totalitarian dictatorships.
The excuse advanced by those wanting to stop Leveson 2 and Section 40 is straightforward: “Since Leveson part 1, the UK has dropped 19 places in the World Press Freedom Rankings”. It Was Leveson Wot Done It. This is complete and total drivel. Leveson has no force in law. It cannot have, and has not had, any effect on press freedom. No effect will be felt unless and until the Inquiry’s proposals are implemented.
Those proposals included making press regulation totally independent from interference from the press bosses and their editors. Most papers signed up to sham regulator IPSO, which is directly controlled by the press. So they get to carry on marking their own homework. The little people - those people who get routinely screwed over by the press and told to sue if they think they’re hard enough - are ignored.
One reason the UK does so badly on the World Press Freedom Index is that most of the press is in the control of a handful of very rich, and very manipulative, people - Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere (and his editor in chief, the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre), the Barclay Brothers, and Richard “Dirty” Desmond. So we score poorly on media plurality. Most regional papers are no longer independent. So we score worse still.
The main press regulator is in hock to the press establishment. So we score yet worse. There is no affordable redress for victims of press misbehaviour. So we score worse once more. Had the Leveson proposals been implemented, and regulation made properly independent, the UK’s score would not decline - it would improve markedly. We can see this by looking at the countries which do best in the World Press Freedom Index.
Take these four examples:
Ireland, 9th last year: a fully statutory press regulation system. The UK press establishment has claimed adamantly that it would not sign up to such a system, but there they all are in Ireland, and signed up to that very same system (the Leveson proposals do not mean a fully statutory regulation system, either).
Germany, 16th last year: a system of regulation that can, and does, require papers to put corrections in the same place as the initial mistaken headline, and with the same prominence. So a pack of lies in a banner front page headline means a correction in a banner front page headline. Compare and contrast with the Sun’s mealy mouthed excuse of a “correction” on the “QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” fraud.
Denmark, 4th last year: a statutory system of regulation backed by judicial enforcement (although, in practice, this last has not yet been required). The presence of that big stick has not curtailed press freedom one bit.
Finland, 1st last year: press regulation backed up by a strict privacy law. You know, the kind of privacy that papers like the Sun want to bust in order to flog a few more papers.
You heard people like Spectator editor Fraser Nelson claiming that IPSO was the “Toughest regulator in the western world”? He spoke with forked tongue. There is not yet a comparative study of press regulation which would support that claim, and if there were, the idea that IPSO would get anywhere near the régimes in the four countries quoted is laughable (the World Press Freedom Index measures a whole raft of other criteria, as well as the system of press regulation in each country).
Fraser Nelson’s equally frequently cited “IPSO can levy million pound fines” is equally dishonest: this is rather like the Mirror titles under Robert Maxwell offering a million pound bingo prize: it was window dressing, it was never going to be paid out, and the management made damn sure it was not going to be paid out.
So you can see that what the press establishment, and its pet poodles, are claiming is bunk. Leveson’s proposals would improve press freedom markedly, and give the UK a chance of being in the top ten on the World Press Freedom Index. And Leveson 2 will finally tell the world of the uncomfortably close relationship between press and Police over a number of years - a relationship that has often become corrupt.
Our free and fearless press wants to go on marking its own homework and at the same time screwing over those it routinely tramples on. That’s not good enough.
[If you want to respond to the Consultation on Leveson 2 and Section 40, please follow the suggestions from campaigning group Hacked Off, which you can find HERE]