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