Monday, 11 August 2014

Oxford Union Debate. The case against statutory regulation of the press.

I thought I'd share with you a short argument against statutory regulation of the press which I advanced at the Oxford Union on July 2.

Speaking for the proposition, "This house believes that any regulation of the press is an unacceptable restriction of freedom of speech," below are the words which the eight minutes allowed.

The argument.

Before I advance the argument for the proposition, let me first acknowledge how we, the Press, have got matters spectacularly wrong, speaking as I do, from the vantage point of a man in the vortex of the most cataclysmic storm in the history of newspapers. 

There have been allegations of corrupt payments to public officials – soldiers and police officers – in return for stories. There have been gross invasions of privacy. And there has been phone hacking. A practise which has outraged a large section of the population and in which, to my regret, I was personally drawn into. 

So what is the cure? 

Ask a lawyer, and they will tell you: “More law”. 

Ask many politicians, and they will tell you: “More state control”. 

This is the default position of every lawyer and politician. More law. More political influence. 

But law begets more law. Laws are seldom repealed but tend to morph into multi-headed Hydras. 

And state control of the press, by whatever statutory instrument you may care to mention, is something we should instinctively mistrust, as our ancestors have for 300 years. 

The effect of any form of state regulation of the press will have a stultifying effect on that most precious and hard won privilege – freedom of speech. 

The Leveson Inquiry has already had a damaging effect. 

The recent conviction of Rolf Harris was jeopardised by his secret arrest made possible by the Leveson Inquiry. 

In November 2012, police searched Harris’s home and removed computer equipment and other items. He was interviewed under caution without being arrested. Newspapers merely reported that an unnamed television presenter in his 80s had been questioned.

Ironically, the questioning took place on the day the Leveson Report was published. One of its controversial suggestions was that except in exceptional circumstances, ‘the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the Press or public’. 

A few days later, Harris’s lawyers, Harbottle & Lewis, sent a letter to at least one newspaper threatening dire consequences in the event of their client being identified, using the Leveson Report as their justification. 

After Harris was arrested in March last year, Harbottle & Lewis despatched a threatening email to the Mail on Sunday containing similar threats, claiming that the public interest would not be served by naming him. 

The following month, Harris was finally identified by newspapers and more than a dozen victims subsequently came forward, nine of whom testified at Harris’s trial. 

Justice was served, in part, by flouting Leveson, not by slavishly donning the shackles of his recommendations.

This position is backed by, Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, who said Harris’s conviction may not have been possible if the sexual abuser had succeeded in keeping his name out of public view. 

Even the merest hint of the threat of outside regulation and one cabinet minister, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller, jumped on the bandwagon and was using it to crush a newspaper investigation into her expenses. 

Miller's special adviser phoned the Daily Telegraph prior to publication in an attempt to warn it off. According to the paper, she issued a veiled threat by reminding it of Miller's role in enacting proposals in the Leveson report on press regulation. 

Even before external press regulation was properly debated, this politician couldn’t stop herself from using the threat of it to bury her misdeeds. She failed. And she resigned, shortly after the paper broadcast a taped call of her special adviser making the threat. 

Last week on BBC’s Newsnight, the Spectator assistant editor Isabel Hardman warned, grimly, that the number of politicians calling her office to demand they tone down their negative political stories, has grown considerably since Leveson. 

David Wooding, the Sun on Sunday’s political editor, says important political investigations are being, to use his very words, “sanitised out of existence. Or simply spiked.” 

And if the chill wind of censorship is being felt on the newsroom floor of the Sun, one of the most fearless publications in the world, just think how afraid the local press are feeling now. How daunting it is for them to probe the misdemeanours of their local council and council officials and hold them to account, exposing wrong doing to their electorate. 

All this since the threat of outside regulation mark you, not the implementation of it. With politicians using the threat of state regulation to beat your press into submission, just think what they would do if we gave them the lethal weapon of state regulation, forged in the law courts and finely honed on the ancient mastheads of our democratic free press. 

For that is what it is. Your press. Not mine, a mere former custodian of part of it. And not those who seek to control it for their own political ends. Your press. It’s an important mindsetThe British press belongs to you. It’s yours. You cherish it because you know it speaks its mind. And in these days of slick, carefully staged managed PR campaigns in business, politics and sport, it is a valuable free voice. A vital free voice. 

Otto von Bismarck remarked, “Politics is the art of the possible”. If political interference in the British press was made possible, it would be artfully and stealthily executed. 

The misdemeanours at the News of the World and the investigations taking place into other newspapers, have been used as an excuse by some to rush in a system which prevents papers from exposing scandalous behaviour by figures in the public eye. It is dressed up as a moral crusade about the right to privacy in the face of illegal actions by journalists. It is championed by celebrities such as Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant, who once courted publicity to boost their careers. But seek to silence us when we expose their drug taking or their arrest for kerb crawling. 

It is it right that this cabal of disaffected celebrities and elitist, left wing quasi academics should dictate what we should or should not read like some latter-day Lord Chamberlain? 

So what of that cure? 

The cure is taking place as we speak. The criminal wrong doing by journalists has been investigated by 195 police officers for three years. As well as the trial which has just concluded, at least 12 more trials are in the pipeline, involving up to 40 accused. They are among 96 journalists arrested since 2011. In two days time, I will be sentenced by an Old Bailey judge, alongside Andy Coulson, my former editor, Greg Miskiw my boss, and my colleagues James Weatherup and Dan Evans for listening to voicemails. 

I say this to demonstrate that the law works as it is. I can tell you from rather painful first hand experience, that wrong doing is being severely punished. It is far more effective than moral puritanism. Or a Royal Charter, which may allow undue political interference and wipe out the industry with £1 million fines. Or beat it into subservience with growing powers and influence in years to come, under less savoury political regimes than we enjoy at present. 

You don’t need your peers in the form of Hacked Off or your elected politicians dictating what you can and cannot read and lecturing your press on how to behave. You have the police. You have the law. And you have the judiciary. It is enough. And I am the living proof.

The Oxford Mail's report here.