Tom Mackenzie: Sinister threat of press regulation
LET me make one thing clear before you say what a certain Mandy Rice Davis said about a minister's denial of sexual shenanigans during the Profumo Affair: 'Well he would say that wouldn't he'?
I don't work for the paper. I am merely privileged to be able to share my thoughts with you each week. It is no more than a forum or, as some might say, Tom's soap box.
This week I want to say some more about the sinister threat, as I perceive it, of Lord Leveson's press regulation proposals. Ed Milliband was so childish and opportunistic as to leap to his feet the minute it was published and without so much as glance at it, declared that the report must be implemented in its entirety, all two thousand pages of it.
What if Leveson had said that leader columns and stories had to be vetted by a new government appointed agency or that agency had the power to close down a newspaper seriously in breach of its strictures?
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The fact is that the more the press seek to find a workable framework for it to operate within the more it becomes apparent how flawed Leveson's proposals are and how out of touch with the real world is its author.
Perhaps we were wrong to think that a judge would be the best person to tackle the job. They are concerned with laws and constraints and that is exactly the kind of straitjacket that we do not wish our press to operate within.
Vested interests always seek to protect themselves. A timid, over-cowed press exactly suits their purpose.
In recent days a man has gone public with his concerns about NHS death rates and has broken the gagging order he was dragooned into signing. His concerns, however, about public safety are so great that he is prepared to risk prosecution and financial ruin in order to bring those concerns to the public.
Leveson doesn't like whistleblowers. He would prefer they report their misgivings internally and not to outsiders. Quite so, and we all know where that leads: cover-ups and inaction. For the person raising the concerns it is demotion if they are lucky or more likely the sack.
For any society to operate cleanly, basically only two conditions have to be met. First, it must offer protection to insiders whose conscience drives them to go against their superiors. These, in my view, are hero figures – the very opposite of grasses.
It is natural for any organisation to try to cover its tracks, but it is not in the public interest that they should be allowed to do so. The second is that there is someone to whom they can go who is in a position to lay the facts before the concerned millions. Those millions then become an irresistible force that no organisation or even government can withstand.
As things operate at the moment both of these essential safeguards are under threat, along with much else besides. Truth to tell, Leveson is a disaster and we must not be afraid to say so.
What is so infuriating is that the trigger for this great hoo ha of an inquiry, phone hacking, was already against the law. It just needed the police to do their job. I am not saying that the Press Complaints Commission did not seriously need beefing up. People who have been falsely impugned should have a quick and cheap remedy for redress along with compensation. And their exoneration should not be tucked away in small print in a little-read part of the paper/magazine.
But let's not kid ourselves. Without a free and fearless media we would quickly become inundated in a sea of slime. Say what you like about the defunct News of the World, but the villains and scandals it brought to book over the 154 years of its existence merited it being given another chance. We are all the poorer now that it is gone. Who, post Leveson, is out there brave enough to name and shame in the way it did? I wouldn't have fancied Sir David Nicholson's chances of clinging on as long as he has done had the 'Screws' been there to pile on the bile.
The climate that the press is operating in today is a chilling one. If Leveson and his little band of self-important, sanctimonious pygmies such as Hugh Grant, Max Mosley and Steve Coogan have their way it will become distinctly chillier.
One of the reasons we are seen around the world as a relatively clean society is because of our hugely admired, free and robust media. In a post-Leveson world none of the scandals which have come to light – MPs' expenses; hospital and Hillsborough deaths; N.Wales child abuse; Savile outrages and yes, phone hacking (exposed, by the way by the press itself) would have done so.
Nothing better illustrates how out of touch Leveson truly is with the world we live in today than the pathetic two pages he devoted to internet traffic in a report that stretched to 2,000 pages.
In that world anything goes. Leveson's writ will never reach it, much less be applied. So where's the fairness in that for an industry already struggling to survive? His sloppy, authoritarian thinking would emasculate it further. And those very stories that he would seek to put under wraps would reach a curious public anyway.
He just doesn't get it, but yet is arrogant enough to think that his recommendations should be written up on tablets of stone. At a stroke of his, no doubt, quill-like pen he would wipe out centuries of press freedom. Sorry, Brian, but we are not about to oblige and neither is our prime minister.
The fact is that Lord Justice Leveson is part of that secretive establishment that knows what's best for us and likes to operate behind closed doors and tell us only what IT believes we should know and no more. We were almost the last country in the developed world to enact a Freedom of Information Act and even then it was hedged about with so many let-outs that requests can be routinely ignored, even by a public sector paid by us.
Very soon we shall see the release of thousands of BBC emails relating to who was responsible in the Savile affair. Look out to see how much is redacted. Believe me it would make for sensational reading because even what is left, apparently, is hot. Watch this space!