It is a tribute to the imagination of those behind the campaign to smother Leveson at birth that so many major news stories can in some way be twisted to the industry’s advantage. Jimmy Savile’s vile abuses? They would never have been uncovered if the press had been manacled to statutory legislation, thundered the Daily Mail. Never mind that Savile was exposed not by the press but by ITV, a tightly regulated broadcaster.
The Duchess of Cambridge’s topless pictures? They were published in countries with tougher press regulation than the UK, so making new laws all but pointless, went the argument advanced by Lord Grade in the House of Lords last week. This is a counsel of despair argument implying that whatever is worst in the world has to be our standard in this country.
Boris Johnson’s comment piece for the Telegraph went to even bolder extremes in suggesting that Hacked Off are demanding a registration scheme for accredited journalists (it’s not us but the editors who want that) – and fuelling a rumour that the Guardian might axe its print edition (also untrue – see Roy Greenslade’s response here).
Now the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh opines on the lessons for the UK from the arrest of Greek journalist Costas Vaxevanis for publishing a list of some 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts. Kavanagh follows in the wilder footsteps of Richard Littlejohn in the Mail. Their theme is that “statutory legislation is the first step down the path” now being trodden by Greece. “Privacy legislation is being used by the rich and powerful to gag the media”, writes Kavanagh. “If we’d had a European-style statute against ‘invasions of privacy’, the newspapers would never have been able to expose outrageous tax-avoidance schemes used by stars such as the comedian Jimmy Carr”, Littlejohn supposes, adding for good measure, “We are already on the slippery slope to becoming a police state”.
So to summarise, we start with a case involving data protection in Greece, waft in the hint of draconian European privacy laws (not so draconian that they prevented the publication of the Duchess’s honeymoon pictures) and then muddle both with calls in this country for a properly independent regulator for the press, providing redress for victims of bullying, harassment and intrusion by UK national newspapers. It is a blurring of arguments which suits those who would rather not look clearly at the facts, and at the sixty-year record of failure of self regulation. No one is suggesting any kind of pre-publication vetting regime. Nobody wants to see the scrutiny of the rich, famous and powerful undermined in any way. What would be welcome would be a credible commitment by the industry to right the wrongs done to ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down, as opposed to the army of straw men sent out to fight for the interests of newspaper proprietors and editors.
Postscript: It is probably too much to ask for some balance to be injected into reporting of the debate on press regulation, but the Telegraph is making not even the slightest pretence at even handedness. Witness the links in this write-up of the Lord Grade story.
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off website and is reproduced with permission and thanks