WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Melanie Philips stole my Muslim transsexual baby, forcing me to eat my cat, which gave me cancer

The claim that the public benefits from a "raucous press" is almost entirely fictional. In the meantime, the likes of Lucy Meadows are trampled on.

I have never had any dealings with Melanie Phillips, never had a baby and never eaten cat (to the best of my knowledge – although, these days who can say with certainty?). I just thought it appropriate to emblazon a sensational title across the top of this piece, which has nothing whatsoever to do with its content or the truth. My thinking was, in the words of Kelvin MacKenzie, "If it sounds right, lob it in."

This is, apparently, the way in which a "raucous press" must be allowed to behave, otherwise Britain will turn into Iran or North Korea or both at the same time. Essentially, "raucous" boils down to the idea that the public should put up with papers behaving badly, because there are significant benefits. This is the plain argument behind all the elegant rhetoric. And it’s not a bad one, but it must be accompanied by an explanation of the benefits, tangible, rather than theoretic.

There is an unacknowledged tension at the centre of the debate. The free press is already unfree – there, I said it. Ninety per cent of national titles are owned by a very small group of billionaires, the majority of them based abroad. The international Press Freedom Index, compiled largely from the responses of people in or related to the industry, ranked the UK at 29 this year. The top country according to the index is Finland, which has a system of self regulation, fully underpinned by statute, very similar to what is being proposed.

There is a business aspect to what we do. We work for commercial organisations with commercial considerations. The environment is so highly competitive that it can push journalists to excess. It is a great myth to suggest that the public interest is the primary preoccupation of these companies. It may be in the mix – for some more than others – but dominant is the imperative to sell copies and generate website traffic. The public interest and the commercial interest can, and often do, clash. Inside our heads, we might be Superman, vigilante hero from Krypton. To the world, we’re just Clark Kent, salaried employee of the Daily Planet.

If we want people to collectively and individually support a request for special dispensation, we must demonstrate what they might get in return. Otherwise, it is just a carte blanche to vandalise people’s lives for some romanticised past or speculative future good. If we wish to put ourselves forward as defenders of constitutional freedom and democracy, then we have to take that role seriously. Having hissy fits about state involvement in our own regulation, while applauding Theresa May for trying to impose her will on the Qatada case, is hypocrisy. A constitutional role is not a Groucho Marx nose on a bit of elastic, to be worn only when it suits one.

Then, there is the total denial of the cavalier "lob it in" attitude which brought the inhabitants of the Fourth Estate to the cusp of their first ASBO. Such a lack of contrition and reflection is an insurmountable obstacle to rehabilitation. It reinforces the argument that we cannot regulate ourselves. Cheap, personal attacks on celebrities who support statutory regulation are symptoms of our very malaise. Louise Mensch’s "two Churchillian fingers" to Hacked Off, is an insult to the ordinary people who found themselves at the centre of a press feeding frenzy. How can anyone trust an industry to put its own house in order when it suggests, increasingly, that it did nothing wrong?

Many point to the MPs' expenses scandal as the brightest recent example of the press holding the powerful to account. But let us also remember that the story was exposed and pursued largely by papers, which did not engage in the sort of conduct which was the subject of the Leveson inquiry. As a matter of fact, Rebekah Brooks turned down the story when it was brought to her. Perhaps minor celebrity A had been telescopically photographed putting Appendix X into minor celebrity B that day, so space was scarce. The truth is that if anybody illegally hacks the phones of a few hundred powerful people, they will occasionally come up with stories which are in the public interest. It does not follow that this was their motive.

"Anything bad that happened is already unlawful", is a popular argument. But what about the death of Lucy Meadows and the way she was treated by the media? Is that not a perfect example of conduct which may not have been unlawful, but could have been covered by a strong code of ethics? "It’s covered by existing regulation", a colleague suggested (apparently articles 3, 4 and 6 of the PCC code), "the issue, as ever, is one of enforcement, not a lack of rules".

To whom is this plea for better enforcement directed? It can’t be to the police, whom the press had been bribing into breaking the law. It can’t be to the state, which the press resolutely rejects as an overseer. It can’t be to the PCC (or a variation thereof) which has shown itself to be completely ineffective. It can’t be to individuals within the press itself – if there were a general understanding that this kind of reporting is wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. So, who is left to oversee us? We have corrupted, manipulated and undermined all other instruments of regulation, only to bleat about the enforced remaining alternatives.

Membership of the PCC is proof that newspapers accept the principle that they must operate within restraints which go beyond what is merely unlawful. The rejection of a robust way of enforcing such a code shows that they are only happy to do so in circumstances where enforcement is weak and toothless. In other words, we will agree to comply, provided we can get away with not complying. I have a lot of sympathy for constitutional arguments against state involvement. But when the continuum between an unfettered press and self regulation has been tried and has failed, what is left?

We have made it very clear what we don’t like, but not what alternative we propose. This is the question to which I have not yet seen a cogent answer. All I have seen is a cleverly reformulated plea: to continue to be allowed to behave appallingly, to trample the likes of Lucy Meadows, to invade people’s private lives with catastrophic results – all in exchange for some fictional benefit: the vague notion that, while we are looking for cheap smut, we may stumble across something of actual value to the nation.

Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie leaves the High Court after giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on January 9, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Getty.
Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.