Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, went to the Society of Editors Conference to flatter and deceive. And I was on hand yesterday to witness the sight of the fearless watchdogs of the British press lap it all up.
“The press”, Mr Javid told them, “exists not to pander to the powerful, but to hold them to account”. But these assembled editors allowed Mr Javid to get away with being the only speaker at the conference to refuse to answer questions and then dutifully published the pre-spun nonsense that the Conservatives’ proposed British Bill of Rights would “protect the free press”.
One thing which had been on the minds of the editors throughout the Conference was something that Hacked Off has been actively campaigning about – the dangers of the police use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (“RIPA”) to obtain information about journalistic sources without any form of judicial oversight. How did Mr Javid deal with this? He used the words that his audience wanted to hear:
RIPA was passed to help with the fight against serious criminal wrongdoing.
Not to impede fair and legitimate journalism, no matter how awkward that journalism may be for police officers and local councils.
The legislation should never be used to spy on reporters and whistle-blowers who are going about their lawful, vital, business.
I know Theresa May is doing what she can to stop this happening.
And what is Mrs May doing? Absolutely nothing at all. Worst still, Conservative ministers have made it clear that they oppose an amendment proposed by Lib Dem peer Lord Strasburger, with cross party support, to amend RIPA to require judicial authorisation to obtain information about journalistic sources. The police are going to be able to continue to “spy on reporters and whistleblowers” and Conservative ministers will do nothing about it in this Parliament when they have the legislative opportunity and a majority to get it through.
Mr Javid should know this and so should his audience. But none of the newspaper reports of the speech raised any questions about this issue.
Instead, the obedient lap dogs of Fleet Street concentrated on another part of Mr Javid’s speech. A confection of falsehoods and absurdities that defies parody:
First, Mr Javid tells us that “Unaccountable European judges are trying to restrict media freedom” Are these the same judges that gave us the Sunday Times case (permitting reporting of the Thalidomide story which the English courts had held to be a contempt of court)? Or perhaps the judges that gave us journalistic source protection in the case of Goodwin (the English courts having ordered the journalist to disclose his sources)?
Then he complains about the “right to be forgotten” – terrorists have, he says, “ordered Google to cover up stories about their trials”. This got him some headlines but it is palpable nonsense. The Google Spain decision does not permit anyone to “order” Google to do anything. If Google has removed links to stories about terrorist trials (and no examples are given) then they have done so on the basis of their assessment that continued publication is not in the public interest.
Then, the piece de resistance, the key message of the speech:
I have agreed with the Justice Secretary that the British Bill of Rights will include specific protection for journalists and a free press. The Human Rights Act and the European courts have not done enough to protect journalists who play such a unique role in our society.
This is the message which got Mr Javid the headlines in the Telegraph (“British bill of rights ‘would protect free press’”), the Mail (“Tories’ Bill of Rights ‘will protect free Press’“) and even the Guardian (“Conservatives’ British bill of rights proposal to guarantee freedom of press”).
But it is nonsense.
For a start, as set out above in the Sunday Times thalidomide case, the critical Goodwin case and many others (for example the Financial Times’ legal battle with Interbrew), it was the European courts that have backed journalistic freedom, overturning anti-press rulings from the UK. And of course, the legal challenge to the police’s use of of RIPA powers without judicial oversight by the Bureau of Investigative Journalists silently cheered on by the tabloids has been taken to Strasbourg, not to UK courts and is based on Article 10 not any British law.
Moreover, the Tories’ “Bill of Rights” will water down the protection for press freedom which is already contained in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The English Courts will no longer follow the press friendly decisions of Strasbourg and, if Parliament doesn’t like pro-press decisions from English judges, it will be able to ignore them. The British Bill of Rights will seriously weaken free speech protection in English law.
And there is more. It is true that there has never been an English statute which has clearly placed on Government ministers a duty to uphold and protect the freedom of the press. It is not clear whether this is what Mr Javid is promising but if it is it is not an original idea. It is to be found in recommendation 33 of the Leveson Report
“the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”.
This was a Leveson recommendation which was rejected by Mr Javid’s predecessor as Culture Secretary, Maria Miller. And it was also rejected by the Society of Editors. No explanation has been offered for the volte face. It can, perhaps, be put down to Mr Javid’s desire to throw a few scraps to the assembled lap dogs and to try and drum up some media support for the ridiculous “British Bill of Rights” proposal.
This was a disgraceful speech, designed to flatter a docile press who recognise in Mr Javid a steadfast ally in their unending struggle to avoid effective and independent regulation and who are, as a result, happy uncritically to regurgitate ministerial nonsense.
As the minister was flattering the Society of Editors as brave watchdogs holding the powerful and politicians to account, they turned into pampered poodles in front of him. Mr Javid sat back purring at the surprisingly “easy gig” before leaving the scene, still being fawned over by leading members of the Fourth Estate.
Dr Evan Harris is an Associated Director of Hacked Off