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.)

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.