There was something satisfying about putting Lord Justice Leveson in front of a committee of scrutineers in the guise of the Commons Culture Select Committee. After all his £5m inquiry into the newspaper industry gave him 15 months’ free reign to summon and interrogate, damning anyone reluctant to answer his intrusive questions as evasion. He felt free to make public private text messages and phone conversations, to the cheers of those brave privacy warriors Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, glamorous poster-boys for the media academics in Hacked Off.
Were the tables turned at last? No chance. It was telling that the law lord wouldn’t play ball when on the receiving end of some rather tame inquisition, arrogantly refusing to answer MPs’ questions, at one point declaring: “With great respect, I’m not saying anything.” With great respect? More like outright contempt for elected representatives.
We can hardly blame him for his inflated sense of self-importance. There was cross-party support when the Prime Minister handed him the wide-open brief of investigating the “culture and ethics” of the British media. Many MPs, perhaps irritated by a self-righteous media which had seemed to wallow in exposing the expenses scandal, lapped up the schadenfreude and enthusiastically egged on this unelected law lord as he forced the “Fourth Estate” to expose their own dirty linen. And if we wonder where Sir Brian learned to treat the media disdainfully, remember he was given further grist to his mill by many from the broadsheets that, at best, were naïve in the extreme: imagining Leveson as some white knight who would rescue the media’s reputation by cleaning up grubby tabloids whilst leaving their self-flatteringly described “public interest journalism” untouched.
Still, it was breathtaking to witness Leveson loftily declare himself above the messy business of democratic accountability. He disavowed any responsibility for the outcome of his inquiry, sniffily noting, “The concept of the Royal Charter was not mine. I did not think of it”. When he disingenuously claimed it would be wrong for a serving judge to “comment on what is now a politically contentious issue”, many of us cried “Yes indeed – but rather too late”. Yet he can’t evade the judgment of history. He must for ever be known as the grandee who effectively ended 300 years of press freedom by making it so contentious that some form of illiberal state licensing of newspapers now seems inevitable.
Regardless of the specific way that the media will be reined in, Leveson has already done his damnedest. His very name is now is used to chilling effect, synonymous with a threat to behave or else, regularly wielded as a weapon by lawyers, politicians and risk-adverse media bosses whenever any journalist suggests pursuing too risqué a story, or an article appears that offends someone in authority. Leveson has made it respectable to demand restraint of any allegedly renegade journalism. During the recent Miliband family saga, it was striking that the Opposition Leader’s knee-jerk reaction was to directly quote Leveson’s brief, and demand an inquiry into the “culture and practices” at the paper most liberals in Britain love to hate.
Without rehearsing the rights and wrongs of the attack on Ed’s Dad, it was also notable how many disapprovingly tut tutted at this example of “nasty journalism”. Post-Leveson, is the only acceptable journalism nice? It’s worth remembering that journalism’s historic roots are vicious satires, radical pamphlets and the often scurrilous periodicals of the 18th century. And those great heroes of modern liberty, from Locke to JS Mill to Jonathan Swift – hardly mild-mannered – concluded that however venemous the press could be, the freedom to address “the masses” directly without the state or crown deciding what it was appropriate to read, represented the move from autocracy to modern democracy. Freedom always has a price, but surely one worth paying? As Karl Marx said, you cannot have the rose without the thorn. And consider the alternative? Timid journalists who don’t nose around, who take the word of the press officer as gospel, who merely reprint nice, fluffy press releases, no questions asked.
What to do? Two suggestions: instead of getting bogged down in the legalistic minutiae of opposing Leveson, maybe our best retort should be a robust defence of nasty hacks. Let’s hear it for those who sniff around asking awkward questions, prying into dirty secrets because the instinct to get the story at any cost, to be sceptical and prepared to snoop, to use tips from disloyal friends and employees, is exactly what allows journalists to uncover wrongdoing.
Secondly, while I don’t want to be a philistine, surely life is too short to follow Leveson’s withering retort to MPs that we should read his 2,000-page, million-word report (typos and all). Instead let me recommend a shorter manifesto for press freedom: John Milton’s eloquent 1644 Areopagitica. This passionate argument against the Puritan government’s 1643 licensing act, railed against the idea that the press should be licenced by any higher authorities and established that a free press was the foundation stone of all other freedoms: “give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. If Milton could beat the Puritans, we still stand a chance!
Claire Fox is Director of the Institute of Ideas and convener of the annual Battle of Ideas. 19-20 October Barbican, London.