Hacked Off: I am going to have such fun with these people

The other week I wrote a piece detailing how Hacked Off, the group shrilly campaigning for a controlled press, had achieved their goal by “using all the red-top tricks they claim to hate – broad-brush condemnations, simplistic arguments, distorted facts, behind-the-scenes political deal making, celebrity stardust and the emotive deployment of victims.” I also described how, as well as helping victims of press abuse, Hacked Off wants to “force the press to serve defined social and political objectives – at the expense, if necessary, of the right to free expression.”

Hacked Off’s celebrity supporters reacted in characteristically calm and measured fashion. “Wow, Andrew Gilligan still knows how to write lies,” hissed Stephen Fry. No actual lies were cited, you understand, but for the kind of people who support Hacked Off, any fact with which they disagree is self-evidently false, and soon to be eliminated by their new “voluntary independent self-regulator.”

Hacked Off itself has been too busy denouncing the Committee to Protect Journalists and suchlike enemies of liberty to respond until now, but yesterday it finally published what it says is merely a 12-point “sample” of my crimes against truth. I particularly enjoyed Number 11, denying my claim that a gentleman called Martin Moore, director of the equally ghastly Media Standards Trust, is a director of Hacked Off. My source for this wicked fabrication is…well… Hacked Off’s own notepaper.

How did Hacked Off miss this, I wonder? Perhaps Rupert Murdoch – he’s responsible for most things  – crept up to their office and put Moore’s name in when they weren’t looking? Could Hacked Off’s notepaper have been hacked?

Then there’s Point 7, about Professor James Curran, co-founder and until recently chair of the enticingly-named Coordinating Committee for Media Reform (CCMR), which has recently renamed itself the Media Reform Coalition. CCMR’s website front page describes Hacked Off, shown with its symbol on the bottom right of the page, as one of its “partner” organisations along with a whole line of other lefty bodies (Compass, the New Left Project, the Coalition of Resistance, Avaaz, etc.) One of CCMR’s key figures, Prof Natalie Fenton, is also named as a director of Hacked Off on its notepaper, unless Rupert put that in too, and often speaks for the Hacked Off campaign.

Curran and CCMR believe that the problem with the newspapers “goes further than” journalistic misconduct, namely that “the press was the principal cheerleader of the deregulatory politics that landed us in the economic mess we’re in.” As well as tackling “individual grievances,” Curran says, a new press regulator must correct the “national conversation” and change the “terms of public debate” as part of “imposing public-service duties” on newspapers.

Prof Curran said all this at a meeting of… well… Hacked Off (on May 17 2012, one of several jointly organised by Hacked Off and CCMR.) Hacked Off objects to my description of Curran as its “key intellectual inspiration,” but at that very meeting, Hacked Off’s director, Brian Cathcart, described the book in which Curran sets out these ideas, Power without Responsibility, as the campaign’s “Bible.”

(I’m thinking of writing a similar treatise about Hacked Off, by the way. Perhaps I could call it Self-Importance without Self-Awareness.)

CCMR’s close intertwining with Hacked Off is part of the basis of my assertion that Hacked Off wants to “claim the country for the authoritarian Left.” I also quoted from several of the speakers at the May 17 meeting (webcast here), demanding that the press regulator require the media to “support” the NHS, ban Page 3 and ensure that all reports on domestic violence are “sensitive.” Hacked Off claims that it merely “attended” this meeting “alongside other (non-affiliated) groups.” In fact, it organised it; its directors, Cathcart and Fenton, chaired it; and the woman who called for the restrictions on reporting domestic violence is from Equality Now, a group described by Hacked Off’s website as a “partner organisation.”

Then there’s Prof Chris Frost, who I described as a “Hacked Off supporter” and quoted as saying: “The right to free expression… cannot be absolute… the key is to allow as much freedom as is concomitant with the rights of others balanced by the public interest.” Point 3 of Hacked Off’s Roll-Call Of Gilligan Shame accuses me of misrepresenting Frost’s role with the campaign and misquoting him. Would that be the same Chris Frost who describes himself in his witness statement to Leveson as a “supporter of the Hacked Off campaign,” or a completely different one?

As for the supposed misquotation, here’s what Frost said, in a piece calling for a press regulator:

The right to free expression as upheld by the press is one of the most important rights we have in the UK alongside the right to life and liberty, but unlike these it cannot be absolute. Opponents of better standards like to suggest that free speech IS absolute and that any curtailment means the end of free speech. But freedom of expression has always been bounded by restrictions in order to protect other human rights or to prevent harm. The key is to allow as much freedom as is concomitant with the rights of others balanced by the public interest.

James Curran attacks the “First Amendment fundamentalism” and “righteous libertarianism” of the British press, too, by the way, saying that discussion of media reform “should not be limited only to defending freedom of expression.”

Hacked Off also hates me calling it a “campaign for a controlled press.” But if the proposals in its Royal Charter were not controls on the press, there would be little point in them. It fumes at my reference to a “state-backed regulator,” insisting that its scheme is for “voluntary self-regulation.” This is, quite simply, a lie. The regulator will not be part of the state, but it will be required to conform to fairly prescriptive criteria set down by the state – hence “state-backed.” It will not be “voluntary.” Newspapers will effectively be compelled (by the state) to take part because non-participants will be forced (by the state) to pay crippling costs and damages. It will not be “self-regulation,” since the entire point is that the regulator will not be under the control of the press and the press will no longer regulate itself.

Life’s too short to go through all the other distortions in Hacked Off’s riposte. Suffice it to say that apart from one point (12, if you’re interested – which we swiftly corrected) all their claims are untrue or misleading. Not surprising from an outfit one of whose directors, as I revealed this weekend, gave false evidence to Leveson under oath. This, however, is what we’ll be up against soon for real – instead of just mocking Hacked Off in a blog, I’ll have to go ten rounds with the press regulator every time they get annoyed with me. When Hacked Off talks about making the press “accountable,” what they mean is making it accountable to people like them.

There’s a silver lining, though. Arrogant, entitled, lying and hypocritical, in Brian Cathcart and Hacked Off I think I’ve found my new Ken Livingstone. What fun we’re going to have together!

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Leveson's central recommendation is a contradiction in terms

The phrase “independent self-regulation,” used by Lord Justice Leveson, was presumably crafted to make his proposals seem less threatening. It’s certainly having the desired short-term PR effect: it’s been unthinkingly parroted in all the instant media reaction. But it may end up being an own goal.

Because if you actually stop to think about it, it’s nonsense. Regulation is either independent of the industry, or it’s self-regulation. It can’t be both. You’d expect a High Court judge to know that, wouldn’t you?

Similar troubling syntax is employed on the alleged distinction between “statutory regulation” and the “statutory underpinning” of the supposed “independent self-regulator.” There is, in fact, no essential difference. Any legislation, “underpinning” or otherwise, will, as the report makes clear, have to set a series of statutory criteria for a regulator which will amount to government involvement in the affairs of the press.

At the very least it establishes a precedent, a crack in the door, which future governments will have no difficulty in widening. Indeed, at worst, the criteria could be immediately drawn in ways which would at once establish state control over some aspects of the press.

Leveson himself also recommends that if newspapers do not cooperate with this approach, then there should be a swift move to a statutory “backstop regulator” – that is, full state regulation of the kind almost no-one claims to want.

Leveson’s choice of words paradoxically underlines the central point made by the press – that there is no nice-sounding Third Way. The press is either regulated by the state, or it isn’t.

If the National Union of Journalists won't defend journalism, what's the point of it?

Chilling: Chris Frost

I’ve been a member of the NUJ for about ten years. To be honest, there was never all that much point. But I support the principle of trade unionism, I was grateful for the NUJ’s backing during the Hutton inquiry, and I valued the work it did for people who couldn’t stick up for themselves, particularly on local newspapers.

I’m now resigning from the NUJ in protest at what may be its existential mistake in failing to stick up for its entire membership. The union has decided to back a statutorily-underpinned regulator of journalists – a move taken without the slightest consultation with members, no doubt because they knew we would be against it.

The clincher for me was this chilling piece in the Press Gazette from the head of the NUJ’s “ethics council,” Chris Frost (pictured above), defending the union’s position. Mr Frost, an academic at Liverpool John Moores University, writes:

“The right to free expression…cannot be absolute…the key is to allow as much freedom as is concomitant with the rights of others balanced by the public interest…

“If I buy [a newspaper], I expect the news to be reasonably accurate, gathered ethically and a fair selection of the day’s important events…Those who say free expression is more important than those standards…make it clear they don’t understand free expression.”

Yes, you read that right: the union representing journalists wants a regulator to impose its idea of what constitutes a “fair selection of the day’s important events” on the press. No doubt by this Mr Frost means that the Daily Mail should be forced to run fewer pieces about housing benefit claimants and more about children suffering under evil Tory cuts. But it could just as easily be used by some government to demand that the press reports more on its successes and less on its failures.

The issue of “ethically gathered” news is a minefield, too. Had my newspaper not paid for a disc containing MPs’ expenses, the most you’d have known about that scandal would have been ten thousand sheets of blacked-out paper. We had the freedom to publish, and to be damned if we’d got it wrong. If some regulator had had to rule on whether we were being “ethical” or not, it would have held up the story, and given MPs another avenue to block us. (It’s generally forgotten now that they had a serious go at the paper at the beginning of the saga, before the sheer weight of revelation about their greed overwhelmed them.)

Even the requirement for accuracy, which seems uncontroversial enough to outsiders, is quite complicated. Newspapers should (and usually do) make strenuous efforts to be accurate – but we won’t always succeed. We are often shining a feeble torch in a large, dark cupboard. People try to mislead us or give us partial information. Many of the issues we report on are the subjects of bitter dispute, with no one “accurate” version. That’s often precisely why they are newsworthy.

The prospect of some regulator adjudicating when all this can override freedom of expression is terrifying.

On the subject of that all-important virtue, accuracy, I was interested to note that Mr Frost also claims:

“Concerns that stronger regulation would bring more interference are simply not supported by evidence. In 20 years of the Press Complaints Commission and more than 30 years of the Press Council before it not one complaint was made about any newspaper or magazine exposing malpractice by those in power.”

Is he serious? I alone have had at least a dozen PCC complaints from people in power whose malpractice I’ve exposed – like Lutfur Rahman, the extremist-linked mayor of Tower Hamlets (he lost on all the substantive points – but is no doubt looking forward to the rematch if some new regulator comes along.) I don’t know too many reporters in my line of work who haven’t had complaints about them to the PCC from those in power!

Mr Frost also repeats the canard that the PCC has been “brutally proved” by the hacking scandal to be “unfit for purpose.” But what happened at the News of the World, hideous as it was, was not a failure of the PCC or of regulation. There was already a rather strong regulation against hacking people’s telephones – the law. The problem was the failure of the police – many of whom were clearly in News International’s pocket or even on its payroll – to enforce the law.

No press regulator, however strongly constituted, could possibly have had the power to kick down doors at newspapers, seize emails and interrogate journalists under caution. Those are police powers; powers which the police had, but refused to exercise. The PCC’s only failing in the whole saga was to get involved at all. It should have said that the investigation of criminality was outside its power, and called in the cops.

Mr Frost’s claim that “almost everyone believ[es] there needs to be an improvement in the regulatory system” sadly flunks the truth test, too. Seventy-one per cent of the public, according to a recent poll, say that the priority should be better enforcement of the existing law. Perhaps what we really need is a regulator to enforce greater accuracy on third-rate media academics.

Now the NUJ is not a very important institution – but propaganda value of its stance to our enemies is considerable. If even the body supposed to represent journalists won’t defend journalism, what’s the point of it?

Investigative journalism: my testimony to the Lords' select committee

There’s been some reporting of my appearance at the House of Lords select committee looking into the state of investigative journalism. Here’s a fuller extract of what I said than the reports had room for. As I made clear at the beginning of my evidence, these are my personal views, and not those of the Telegraph corporately.

Q: Do I detect that you would regard exposes of the private lives of Premier League footballers as not investigative journalism?

A: I’m not even interested in Hugh Grant’s films, let alone his private life…. That’s not a public interest [matter]. I think the danger, I know lots of people will have said this, but the danger is that the behaviour of some [journalists] tarnishes the behaviour of all, and the vast majority of journalists don’t do the kind of revolting things that we’ve heard people at the Leveson inquiry describing this week.

Q: Are the things they did revolting per se, or is it only the objective they were seeking to expose that made them revolting?

A: You can probably justify, I think, some controversial behaviour as a journalist. I myself, as I’ve written in print in the paper at the time the scandal broke, I have for instance deceived people. I’ve used subterfuge. I’ve invaded people’s privacy [by, for instance, the undercover filming of Islamic extremists in East London]. I’ve received leaked emails which Ken Livingstone claimed were stolen goods.

(Interruption for vote of the House)

The difference between me and the News of the World is that those kinds of things are done rarely, they’re done with great consideration at an editorial level, and they’re done on stories of genuine public interest. And the public interest has to be proportionate to the amount of intrusion or whatever being contemplated.

So it’s arguably permissible to for instance deceive, as I have done, an arms manufacturer who is offering to sell illegal landmines. It’s not proportionate to, for instance, send private detectives to follow Richard Madeley around to see if he does anything newsworthy. [Investigative journalists] don’t do fishing expeditions. We don’t do celebrity stories.

Q: And if the law of the land descends on your head, you would obviously claim morally extenuating circumstances, but would you accept that the rigour of the law might be applied?

A: Any journalist who breaks the law must expect to be held to account. But the issue then becomes how you can account for yourself. And of course in some legislation there is explicitly a public interest defence – [for example] section 55 of the Data Protection Act. In others there isn’t, but I think you would hope to convince the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] that your prosecution was not in the public interest or, a la Ponting [civil servant leaker acquitted under the Official Secrets Act], to convince a jury that your conviction was not in the public interest.

But that is what makes a strong public interest justification so important. And obviously the more controversial a practice you’re planning to conduct, the greater the public interest justification has to be….it has to be very rigorously justified in terms of the public interest.

Q: Would you like to tell us what you consider to be the main threats to, and opportunities for, investigative journalism in the foreseeable future?

A: The most important threat is official restraint, by which I mean libel and privacy law, state surveillance, and the potential threat posed by the Leveson inquiry.

Leveson’s principal task [in his terms of reference] is to recommend a “new, more effective…regulatory regime” on the press. The inquiry’s essentially decided, before it even starts work, that the current regime is not effective and needs replacing. In newspaper terms, it’s written the headline before it’s done the reporting.

What happened at the News of the World, however – outrageous as it was – was quite clearly not a failure of regulation. There already is a rather strong regulation against hacking people’s telephones – the law. It was the failure of the police to enforce the law. And the reason this scandal became so consequential is not just because of what it told us about the press, but because of what it told us about the police and politics.

And unfortunately, Leveson’s terms of reference bear much more heavily on the press than on police or politics, and I think that’s unfair. He is to make recommendations as to how we are to be regulated – in other words, how we should be forced to behave – but merely for the “future conduct” of the police and politicians. In other words, how they should merely be asked to behave.

We’ve heard a lot at the inquiry already about the issue of proportionality. I’ve spoken about it, and I think it’s an important principle in deciding how far you do a practice that might be controversial. And my concern is that the Leveson inquiry is not proportional to the problem. I don’t believe that the problems it exposes – although hideous – were the work of more than a fairly small minority of journalists. And I’m concerned that the whole of journalism is being tarnished, and may be subject to some kind of future, more onerous regulation, for the sake of the activities of a comparative few….

The strength of our democracy – and it is a strong democracy – does not lie in our democratic institutions, which are comparatively weak. It lies in our democratic culture, which is NGOs, academia, the law, and quite importantly the press. In probably the most famous story I did, the Iraq dossier story, that was a story in which all the institutions which are supposed to protect us from bad decisions failed us.

The civil service, in the person of John Scarlett, became Alastair Campbell’s co-conspirator. Parliament, in the foreign affairs select committee, became a method by which the Government hounded David Kelly and me. The judiciary, in the person of Lord Hutton, I think – and I think a lot of people agree with me – got it completely wrong. And the only estate of the realm which actually worked, the only estate of the realm which actually did its job, if belatedly and imperfectly, was the fourth estate, was journalism. It’s very, very important that nothing happens in the next few months, in a time when journalism is going to be under a great deal of scrutiny and attack, to challenge that. And I’m afraid, as I said to you before, that the forces of anti-journalism are growing, as much as the forces of journalism.