Let's try and make some sense of the Levenson debate. Can you call it a debate? I will have to simplify things a bit, but, basically, Levenson wants better ethics in the press with some legislative back-up which he says wouldn't be control of the press. The press don't want the legislation, although they admit they got carried away and became too intrusive before. They want stricter self-regulation. The Labour party want all Levenson's recommendations implemented regardless. The Lib Dem part of the Coalition want them implemented too, including legislation. But the Conservative part of the Government doesn't want legislation, which it sees as press control. Meanwhile, those who had their phones hacked ('personalities' on the whole) want the press curbed. And the active section of the public seems to be moving against press freedom too; some 100,000 have signed the petition calling for legislation.
I find all this a bit odd.
I can see why Levenson recommended tougher oversight of the press. For a start, he had to, given his brief. No one, not even the press, would have accepted a recommendation from him to do nothing. The activities of reporters over the last few years had become totally unacceptable. The argument at the time, from the offending press, was that public interest was being served. And here we have a slight problem - is public interest served by publishing tittle-tattle about celebrities or are we just naturally avid gossipers and happy to read tittle-tattle? Of course, if criminal activity or even simply hypocrisy is uncovered, I guess you could argue that such activities as phone hacking might be justified. And, frankly, all that dramatic bleating by celebrities to Levenson (and interestingly to the press) about privacy didn't convince me at all. Of course celebrities would like to be in the newspapers for what might be called good publicity only. But that's not how it works. The latest broadside from Hugh Grant, who assumes we have forgotten the press articles revealing his assignation in a car with a prostitute, is a case in point. The more he blusters with affronted innocence, the more I remember how the fiction of his clean image was made known, and the less I am convinced that a watchdog backed up by legislation would have kept his seedy nightlife out of the news. OK, so there is a limit to the amount of celebrity news we really want to read in even the mass circulation newspapers. But surely it's legitimate to expose and show up a so-called clean-living film star. Shouldn't it also be right to investigate other blustering innocents in the interests of finding the truth?
Of course we have some difficulties if the press insist on publishing innuendos, despite failing to find evidence. This is where libel laws and a watchdog with teeth are an essential requirement. It is also where legislative provisions would not help.
Having said that, I am not at all interested in pics of the Duchess of Cambridge's breasts or Prince Harry's bottom. That doesn't mean that there should be no pictures of celebrities doing what they don't want us to see. But I don't need to know private addresses nor details of their children. I think I would be able to draw a line beyond which there is no real public interest.
But what exactly does Levenson mean by legislation that doesn't amount to control of the press? He suggested that the legislation should be written in such a way as to show that it wasn't a curb on press freedom. As The Telegraph succinctly put it - why does it need to be written in that way if there is in fact no curb on press freedom? And I should here define my terms. By 'press' I do mean TV and radio too - wherever reporters are out ferreting for information. I don't use the word 'media' because I am excluding 'the new media'. Even Levenson decided that the Internet was impossible to regulate. He described it as an 'ethical vaccuum' and suggested that we all knew it wasn't reliable. I'm not sure that's true. But anyway half the recent press intrusion problems arose from the speed and coverage of the Internet. A report or a picture in one news outlet is almost immediately available worldwide online. So I exclude the Internet for the purposes of these comments, but the fact remains that a curb on the press, whilst leaving online media completely free is an anomaly in the inquiry's findings. Levenson wrote 2,000 pages on press activities and measures to rein them in, but only one page on the whole Internet, which seems to me to leave rather a gap in the inquiry.
As far as public opinion is concerned, I fear we must, as we seem to need to increasingly these days, discount it. There is such a knee-jerk reaction to the pronouncements and actions of authority these days, especially where the political parties are involved, that little thought is given to the implications of what people are asking for. Having our legislators curb press activities is the last thing we really want. We actually want journalists poking around in the affairs of state. I am proud to live in a country where the press is unfettered. Yes, it
leads occasionally to excesses, but, as this time, we then do something
about it. And I don't see any problem in reporters pursuing celebrities either, especially those that make use of the press for their own purposes. Should we accept without question the statements and views of those who appear in our newspapers or on our TV screens? Where such activities are concerned, I think the press has a duty to expose hypocrisy. Oddly, even the anti-phone hacking campaign Hacked-Off has said that phone-hacking could serve a public interest where a crime might be uncovered. Does this sound like a fudge to you? Not clear to me where they are drawing the line. It only serves to underline the difficult of regulating press activity.
And of course where a crime is committed the whole matter becomes simpler; you don't need more legislation, existing provisions are strong enough - just take the culprits to court, journalists, editors, newspaper owners or whoever. The same applies to intrusive publication of private information. And we have another problem here. How did the phone-hacking affair come to light in the first place? It wasn't the police; they decided not to pursue the phone-hacking evidence. It certainly wasn't the Government; they were much too cosy with the editors. No, it was the Guardian newspaper that revealed all. Now that's a blow for press freedom. And maybe even for self -regulation.
So what of the political parties? I am rather surprised that the Labour party and, more particularly, the Lib Dems, seem to be in favour of legislation to back up press regulation. I thought this might seem an illiberal proposal to them. But of course it's an easy position to call for implementation of the Levenson proposals without actually commenting on anything but the government's cold feet. And the Government's hesitation is indeed a bit of a shot in the foot, since they set the inquiry up.
But let's see what the press come up with on Tuesday. Sometimes, where civil liberties are concerned, arrangements have to be a little messy. We have to put up with some things we don't like in other words. I saw an episode of the TV programme The Hour the other day in which a black man was interviewed on a programme where a racist had just stated his views. The black man said, 'this is the country I want to live in, where a racist that no one likes and very few agree with, can freely state his views in public, where the right of such a man to speak his views is respected and where he is not prevented from speaking'. Amen. Many other countries restrict their journalists (or pop singer protesters) in various ways or punish them afterwards. I want us to criticise those countries and reform them, not teach them how to restrict freedoms in an acceptable way.