When Steve Bell launched his long-running Guardian cartoon strip “If…” in 1981, one early episode was titled “If … dinosaurs roamed Fleet Street”. It showed the beasts marauding up the street, laying waste to newspaper offices and all in their path.
The dinosaurs may have left Fleet Street and may be facing extinction, but when they dimly perceive a threat to their survival they can still crash about and roar and do a lot of damage.
And while the national newspapers’ noisy campaign against the Leveson Inquiry didn’t much help them or anybody else, it did draw attention to the problem Leveson had been set to solve – which is precisely the damage that the blundering, bullying, insensitive owners and editors of the press can themselves do to free speech, to journalism and society at large.
In October all the nationals joined to launch the Free Speech Network (FSN), a vehicle to promote their advance retaliation to Leveson’s report.
The FSN put full page ads in their own papers asking: “These people believe in state control of the press. Do you?”, with pictures of (clockwise from top left) Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Un and Fidel Castro.
In their own pages, the Sun said it was “alarmed by [Leveson’s] main proposal that could allow State officials to walk into papers like The Sun and censor stories.”
The Daily Mail allocated 11 pages to a demented expose of a supposed left-wing conspiracy to seize control of the media for the state. The target was a Blairite network called Common Purpose, one of whose luminaries, Sir David Bell of the Financial Times, was among Leveson’s six “assessors”.
He was also chairman of the Media Standards Trust, the body that set up the hacked Off! campaign. The Mail solemnly noted that he “stepped down as chairman of the Media Standards Trust only when he was appointed a Leveson assessor”. Why should he have resigned before?
Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Kent, a former editor of The Scotsman, wrote the FSN’s manifesto Responsibility Without Power, concluding: “Westminster’s statutory backing for a Press Ombudsman would become President Putin’s State Censorship Committee or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Board of Righteousness.”
THAT THE rogues’ gallery of tyrants might represent the mild and urbane Brian Leveson, and the wild scaremongering about the end of press freedom his report, was evidently absurd. Equally evident was the arrogance and insouciance of the people who could produce such things. Their inanity did not occur to them and wouldn’t have mattered if it had.
“This debate [over Leveson] is not about to be settled with facts and reasoned argument,” wrote Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who persisted with his revelations of phone-hacking in defiance of all the roaring and intimidation from the dinosaurs. “It will be conducted under the same old rules – of falsehood, distortion and bullying. Will any government stand up to it?”
Nick Davies, who says he sees “no obvious problem” for reporters with Leveson’s proposals, added: “These people are just used to having their way and they don’t like anyone daring to stand up to them. But thank God their day is over – I hope.”
Those full page advertisements, all that high-octane coverage about ‘state regulation of Britain’s free press’ has proved to be no more than another round of the same old distortion that did so much to create this inquiry in the first place. “To lose control of the regulator is to lose their licence to do exactly as they please.” Free speech, in effect, is for the owners.
Naturally the dinosaurs will defend aggressively the territory they have occupied for hundreds of years, regardless of the havoc they wreak on their environment. They have poor eyesight and are, to be frank, a bit dim and not very self-aware, so they can’t see that their own blundering about is destroying their world, not Lord Justice Leveson.
But a rather alarming number of honest and decent journalists have followed their leaders into the swamp. The National Union of Journalists, which has stood firmly by the Leveson principle of state-backed self-regulation, has suffered resignations among members who imagine they see their union joining the enemies of a free press.
These people are not fools. They are right to be concerned about threats to press freedom. They have just got the wrong threat.
THE EDITORS have abused press freedom for years, to advance the owners’ commercial and political interests. Alongside the brilliant work still produced by many is not only the rotten consumer- and celebrity-led journalism but the peddling of political interest and the corruption that led to Leveson.
One of the more breathtaking hypocrisies of the anti-Leveson campaign is this allegation of interference by the politicians whom it is the press’s duty to scrutinise, when all the evidence has pointed to unhealthily cosy relationships between Big Media and governments for 30 years.
Who was scrutinising the invasion of Iraq, the ruinous Public Finance Initiatives that are destroying the NHS ,or the deregulation of the banking industry? The press seems to manage quite well to subject itself to censorship on these matters without formal involvement by the state of any kind.
It’s not really surprising that so many in newspapers have followed the owners’ line. The message they hear every day is that print journalism is doomed — the dinosaurs.
On top of internet with its cheating news aggregators and consumers refusing to pay for news online, on top of the slump in sales and classified advertising, now here comes another threat: all the people that journalist are taught to hate – all the lefties, the liberals, expense-fiddling politicians bent on revenge and pampered celebrities — ganging up to bring the British press to its knees.
It is a siege mentality. Gripped by the paranoia of the press barons and required by Leveson to submit their working practices to public questioning for the first time ever, journalists can’t see the way things really are.
They can’t see that supporting the owners and editors simply perpetuates their problems, nor that their freedom of speech, their ability to do their job in the professional manner they desire, would actually be enhanced by positive reform.
Two key reforms – to make the press answer for what it publishes, and to give journalists a right to stand by professional principles in the face of bullying editors – are what should come out of this.
Both are utterly bewildering and threatening to the dinosaurs. That in itself should be enough reason for journalists to support them.