The formal gathering of evidence by the Leveson Inquiry came to an end on 24 July, and we are promised a speedy report. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that this inquiry belongs to a historical tradition. To that tradition belong the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, and the public trials of the 1950s conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Eugene McCarthy. Given the prima doña performances of showbiz celebs in the Leveson 'show' trial, Arthur Miler's Salem witch trials, dramatised in The Crucible, might be a better parallel, with its hysterical denunciations and confessions.
This may seem an extreme parallel. But if it does seem extreme, it only shows the failure to learn anything from history. There was great popular support for many of these inquisitions, and only the form is different today - no hysterical mobs, merely moralistic, smug and self-righteous broadsheet hacks, Guardian readers and Radio 4 listeners! There was hardly any criticism of Leveson. The Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins made modest criticisms of celebs for 'distorting [the] debate', but the major exception to the cheerleading of Leveson was the online magazine spiked and their excellent Counter-Leveson Inquiry.
This latest showtrial was more therapeutic than the earlier trials where there was defiance from individuals. All that was required at Leveson was condemnation and and confession. Murdoch and the tabloids were so clearly guilty that no right thinking person could abslove them of their crimes.
Gove the hero
Education Secretary Michael Gove became an unlikely, and lonely, heroic figure at least to some for consistently criticising the threat to freedom of speech that could result from the inquiry. In an after-dinner speech he said that Leveson could give rise to a 'chilling atmosphere that [could undermine] free speech in Britain'. Upon being summoned to the inquiry itself he - a journalist at heart - said he was 'concerned about any prior restraint on [journalists] exercising freedom of speech'. Leveson responded that he did 'not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech', and accused Gove of effectively condoning criminal behaviour by defending freedom of speech. Gove was not phased by the unelected Lord Justice and, in reply to the suggestion that he was condoning criminality by defending free speech, he told him: 'I don't think any of us can accept that behaviour necessarily, but there are a variety of sanctions... By definition, freedom of speech doesn't mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time'. (1)
Gove was not burnt at the stake but, in a parody of the British TV comedy Yes Minister, Leveson phoned up the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and asked him to have a word and stop his constant critricism. (2) A quaint view of old fashioned class relationships you might think. A whiff of a world in which the elites just knew who to phone up and our betters would quietly point out to jumped-up democratically elected persons the error of their ways. It may yet work and we will never know - which is the way with such quiet words in the ear!
This suppresion of open dissent suggests that the way the inquiry is going, we can see the future for journalists and those of us who dare to speak and put forward unpopular views on any issue.
The clearest indicator of the future is expressed by Steve Coogan, superficially the most unlikely person to front an attack on free speech, being a stand up comedian and satirist but there is the irony. Coogan attacks self regulation and wants a mechanism of 'redress' for ordinary people who are vilified in the press. (3) He clearly, but wrongly, thinks this will not affect free speech. His vision of free speech is that you are free to say what you like, but the Sword of Damocles hangs over your head!
All this sounds very threatening and talk of 'gagging' and 'legal' action for journalists who go too far ignore the kindly nature of the probable outcome. Which is why the concerns of a comic are more scary than the actions of judges and civil servants
Gagging us all
Despite Coogan's vision of the necessity of an iron fist in a velvet glove, the broad effect of the inquiry is unlikely to result in very many new legal attacks on press fredom, or to see a return to the elite system of phoning the right person.
The logic of Leveson will, of course, inevitably lead to legislation that will threaten a tradition of freedom of the press in Britain that begins with John Milton and continues with a long line of literary defenders including John Stuart Mill, George Orwell and, soon to be added to the list, Mick Hume. (4)
But worse than that is the way in which the therapeutic culture in whch we live will likely make Leveson's proposed restrictions more effective. Rather than banning or censoring things outright, such a culture is far more likely to regulate through quiet words from friends, colleagues and even institutional authorites about not causing offence. Far more than iron legislation, such a velvet climate will make the new culture of conformism work. It is much harder to stand up to those you respect, who are your friends, or colleagues you like, than it is to judges, journalists and politicians. It is this therapeutic ethos that may silence Gove and gag all of us. The most important thing is to recognise it, and give those we like and respect some hard love through our hard arguments.
Dennis Hayes is the director of Academics for Academic Freedom
(1) Leveson Inquiry: Michael Gove Warns Leveson on Liberty, BBC News 29 May 2012.
(2) Tom McTague, "Arrogant": MPs' fury at Leveson bid to gag Cabinet minister, Mirror. 18 June 2012.
(3) Coogan on Leveson's 'watershed week', BBC Radio 4 Today 26 November 2011.
(4) See his forthcoming book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press... And We Need One More Than Ever. (Imprint Academic).