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Corporate power, lies about Leveson, and why the royals don’t deserve privacy

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

The newspapers’ response to the Leveson report illustrates perfectly what is wrong with them. Quoting Milton, Wilkes and the US founding fathers, they frame the story as an argument over freedom of the press and its role in protecting us from tyranny. What Leveson proposes, however, has no bearing on newspapers’ capacity to call power to account. His remedies are designed to limit the extent to which the press can harass, mock, insult, bully, threaten, intrude upon, lie about and generally ruin the lives of the weak and powerless, including not only the McCanns, the Dowlers, Christopher Jefferies, victims of terrorism, families of dead soldiers and so on, but also the relatives, employees and friends of those loosely described as celebrities.

The apposite quotation is not from Jefferson or Wilkes – who had no conception that the press existed to do anything other than annoy governments – but from the Chicago journalist F P Dunne: “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The British press today often does the reverse, training far more scrutiny on, for example, benefit claimants, asylum seekers and gypsies than it does on cheating corporations. It is an instrument of corporate power, and the citizenry needs protection from its excesses as well as from the government’s.

Newspaper executives say they don’t want government stooges going into newsrooms telling journalists what they can and cannot write. No, indeed. Journalists already have instructions from the stooges of Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, David and Frederick Barclay and Richard Desmond.

Explicit material

Not that Leveson proposes any role for a government stooge. His recommended legislation (his report says) “would not give any rights to parliament, to the government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever”. Nor would it require them to publish anything except corrections and apologies.

This is one of several misconceptions about the report deliberately propagated by newspapers. Leveson doesn’t want a quango; he wants a regulatory body set up by the press. Legislation would merely give it official recognition. This would allow publications that join it and thus participate in its arbitration procedures to apply for reduced legal costs when those who allege libel or invasion of privacy insist on going to court. As the former editor of two cashstrapped publications, I can assure you that the cheap arbitration provision will be of priceless value to small newspapers and magazines. On at least one occasion, I had to abandon a libel defence because legal costs became prohibitive. Such considerations are of little consequence to a Murdoch or Rothermere. A million in costs and another in damages is just a snip to them, comfortably outweighed by enhanced circulation revenues from their scandal-mongering.

Citizen Smith

Why has the press taken so calmly the news that the late Cyril Smith, a Liberal (and then Liberal Democrat) MP for 20 years, ought to have faced charges of child abuse? It is, if anything, a more scandalous case than Jimmy Savile’s. Smith was a significant political figure who chaired Rochdale’s education committee for six years and later became Liberal chief whip when Labour governed with an overall majority of three.

We are told the director of public prosecutions decided in March 1970 that allegations of assaults between 1961 and 1966 were “somewhat stale” and based on statements from young men whose “characters . . . render their evidence suspect”. But Tony Robinson, a retired Lancashire special branch sergeant, tells me that he recalls “NFA: not in the public interest” being on the front of the file when he saw it in 1974. Moreover, he says he received a telephone call from MI5 in 1977 (when the Liberals made a pact with Labour to keep the latter in power) asking for the file to be sent immediately to London. He never saw it again.

How did a criminal case find its way into special branch files? Why did MI5 want Smith’s file? To ensure that it stayed secret? Or to use it as a blackmail weapon? The fearless reporters of our still-free (but not, we are warned, for long) newspapers should strain every sinew to find answers. But there is no BBC angle. So they won’t.

Fertility rights

As I expected, the first child of Mr and Mrs William Windsor, who married in 2011, will arrive in 2013. The pregnancy announcement (advanced because severe morning sickness required hospitalisation) was probably scheduled for the Queen’s Christmas broadcast or New Year’s Day. Thus the young royals avoided overshadowing this year’s jubilee. They will also wish to avoid upstaging the monarch’s 90th birthday in 2016. Expect Harry Windsor to marry in 2014, and a second child for William and Kate in 2015. Even fertility is organised according to the family’s public relations requirements. That is why royals are not entitled to privacy and, whatever else it does, legislation on the press should specifically bar them from protection.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?