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Tom Edwards

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Defending the Indefensible: Phone Hacking and Press Freedom

Posted: 04/11/2012 21:18

Later this month, Lord Justice Leveson will announce the conclusion of his year-long inquiry into the practice, culture and ethics of the British press.

He is expected to recommend a 'soft touch' approach to regulation, akin to that used in Ireland, which would involve setting up an independent ombudsman.

Recognised by law - but ostensibly independent of government - this ombudsman would be tasked with settling disputes and complaints against the press and ensuring the privacy of individuals is respected.

A noble ideal; And one which is backed by high-profile pseudo-politician Nick Clegg.

But there is a major problem here. Any press regulator set up by statute - regardless of how independent it claims to be - can amount to nothing more than state censorship by proxy.

Worse still, any legal framework set up with the aim of protecting privacy from press intrusion is always open to exploitation by the rich and powerful.

Last week Greek journalist Costas Vaxevanis was arrested for violations of privacy after he published the names of rich tax-avoiding Greeks with Swiss bank accounts.

Although he has since been cleared of any wrongdoing, the fact remains that a journalist publishing the names of people screwing the taxman in a country flailing in the throes of economic meltdown should never have been arrested in the first place. Whatsmore, the legal system should not have allowed him to be.

State intervention in the press should be resisted by a free, democratic public and would be here in the UK, I believe, in almost any other circumstances.

However, the British public have been blind-sided by the phone hacking scandal and by a celebrity backlash against the tabloid press.

This onslaught has meant that the fundamental tenet of free press as a catalyst for successful democracy has been lost amongst a spastic orgy of self-righteous B-list piety and judgemental decree-mongering by certain well-known, yet absolutely unqualified, people.

What many have missed, however, is that phone hacking is a legitimate means of investigative journalism.

Now, I should perhaps clarify this point. The hacking of schoolgirl Millie Dowler's phone was not only morally wrong, it was careless, unnecessary, stupid and indefensible.

But what if it had been the education secretary who was hacked after a tip off about embezzling funds for schools?

Or if it had been the defence secretary, who was secretly sleeping with a lobbyist for an arms manufacturer?

Or a popular Top of the Pops presenter, following secret allegations of child abuse?

Could greater press freedoms have helped stop Jimmy Savile? Personally, I doubt it, but you can see how the 'privacy' lines get blurred. 'Public interest' - the yardstick by which journalistic integrity is measured - can be a fickle and illusive thing.

Lord Northcliffe, a British publisher, famously said that "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising" and he was right.

And if somebody - an often powerful somebody - wants to suppress information, then it is unlikely that a journalist will get it from them just by asking.

So it is that investigative journalism seeks to uncover that which others would have kept secret, in a process which sometimes requires underhand or ostensibly unethical methods.

Back in Ireland, newspapers are not obliged to sign up to their 'independent' regulator, but - and this is a big 'but' - any that do not sign up are rendered unable to use a 'public interest' defence if challenged in court.

It is worth considering what this state-backed regulator defines as 'public interest', and whether or not it equates to the opinion of you or I.

Who has the right to tell the public what it should and should not know? And how can they decide what is and is not in the public interest?

In fact, the only jury able to truly distinguish between that which is and that which is not in the public interest is the public itself.

Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan have no more right to dictate the terms of freedom of expression than you or I.

Or Nick Clegg.

Or, for that matter, Lord Justice Leveson.

In his excellent book There Is No Such Thing as a Free Press journalist Mick Hume argues that the press, far from being a seedy, perverted scourge on modern society, is actually just reflection of it.

The phone hacking scandal is, he says, merely symptomatic of a much broader sociological trend towards voyeurism, which is aided by charity campaigns encouraging people to spy on their abusive neighbours and by a government which increasingly invades peoples' homes to drive out domestic evils.

If this is correct, then in order to survive the newspapers are going to have to continue to change with the rest of society.

Perhaps public appetite will swing away from the kind of invasive voyeuristic material that has been the mainstay of the Big Brother generation. Hopefully it will.

But legislating for media censorship is no way to ensure it does, and could threaten to set a very dangerous precedent.

In recent years we have seen a trend towards libertarianism sweep through the wires and airwaves. Social networks have jump-started public debate and more people are talking more publicly than ever before - and not all of it is nice.

Twitter trolling, cyber-bullying and vigilante justice thrive in this fetid soup where virtual crimes are committed in fits of anonymous and mad hate. Rootless, pointless, nasty, cowardly and antagonistic screamers who can scream on and on at a public who dare not read on and on, but for their curiosity.

Free to speak always though, and rightly so.

Free alongside, of course, the critique of the powerful, the wild, offensive opinions; and the unique, eccentric voices shouting to be heard - the voices which are the lifeblood of a virile and open society.

Unfettered by intervention from high-class lawyers and politicians, the free media must become more like this insane jibber-jabber and learn to harness and present it objectively; Becoming less like its voyeuristic former self in the process.

If it is to remain important, uncensored, and at liberty it must drive the national conversation and question everything constantly, without fear of legal reprisals.

No ombudsman or sanctimonious fucking overlord can watch over this almighty racket and decide for us, the public, what part of it is in our best interest to hear - so please, Mr Leveson, lets not even let them try.

 

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