For the Leveson inquiry and free expression

How the media ethics inquiry is circumventing the chilling power of the tabloids.

The Leveson inquiry is perhaps doing more for genuine "freedom of expression" than any tabloid has ever done. For years, the partisans for the tabloids have invoked the "rights of the press" as a cloak for systemic criminal and intrusive behaviour, whilst the tabloids in turn denied rights of reply and intimidated potential critics into silence. When challenged, the tabloid punditry and their fellow-travellers shake their heads and warn darkly of "censorship" and the perils of "state control". A free press is essential to a vibrant democracy, we are invariably assured.

The problem with this standard defence is that it is not entirely true. A vibrant democracy requires the critics of the press to be heard too, and that simply has not been happening. As is becoming increasingly apparent, one general effect of the tabloid press has not been to promote free expression, but instead to shut people up or limit what they can communicate. That is not the promotion of "free expression". Those who seek to challenge the tabloids are routinely smeared and undermined. The tabloids just want the freedom to do what they want without any real criticism or effective restraint. In effect, editors and journalists of the tabloid press want to be the untouchables in their commercial operations.

The merit of the Leveson inquiry - regardless of its formal findings in its reports - is that it is giving a platform to those whose voices are deliberately smothered by the tabloid press. It has taken this statutory formal inquiry, with powers of obtaining evidence and protection from legal action to witnesses, to save "free expression" from the illiberal onslaught of the tabloids. Left to the tabloids themselves, little of what we have heard over the last week would ever have had any significant circulation.

A couple of very telling moments over the last few days came from when the tabloids thought they had been wronged. For one newspaper, an expensive QC was instructed to loudly "refute" (by which he meant "reject") various allegations, and to demand a right of reply or at least a right to challenge the evidence. Another tabloid complained that the Guardian had got its facts wrong in a strongly worded letter, and insisted on (and got) an immediate correction. One can see why the newspapers reacted in the way they did; but it really is not to their credit that for years they have casually denied such redress to those caught up in the stories. Perhaps the tabloids can now empathise with the senses of unfairness and violation which they inflict on others on a daily basis.

One should always be sceptical of those who claim grand principles to mask selfish behaviour. Such heady language is, as Samuel Johnson observed, the usual refuge of scoundrels. Instead, look carefully at what is actually being done and not done by those people and entities seeking to evade and misdirect scrutiny. The tabloids have for too long hidden behind the nod-a-long anthems of "free expression".

It is now time to allow those who criticise the tabloids free expression, too. After all, this is also essential to a vibrant democracy.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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