If you want to keep our press free, distrust judges and politicians
Journalists, like architects, already face a strict regulatory regime, writes Paul Finch
Forty years ago, the bankruptcy hearing took place in respect of architect John Poulson, now little remembered, who ran the biggest practice in Europe - based in Pontefract.
What was revealed was extraordinary: bribery was the stock in trade not just of Poulson’s business, but household-name contractors. All-too-willing targets included planners and political figures up to cabinet level. The hearing was reported most fully in the Yorkshire Post.
So sensational were the revelations that the establishment does what it always does on these occasions: the hearings went into private session and could no longer be reported. Nevertheless, the subsequent resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, (he found himself in charge of the police who were investigating him) and a series of court cases involving politicians and civil servants were deeply embarrassing to Edward Heath’s government.
A free press should not have to worry about political consequences of coverage, however inconvenient it may be, and however it may have come by information that embarrasses politicians. Technically, the admirable people who leaked details of how MPs were lying about their expenses were probably guilty of breach of trust or theft of information. For the press, there was one simple test about using the material: the stench emitting from every cranny in the House of Commons.
Now it is payback time. Anyone who thinks the attack by the political class on the press is simply about tabloid excess is wrong. It is a power play by people in control trying to muzzle people who cause them trouble. In reality, the press already faces numerous and onerous controls - established in law - requiring no Press Council, Press Complaints Commission or Leveson Tribunal for enforcement.
Take the law on libel, the only English law where you have to prove your innocence if there is a prima facie case to answer. One reason I have always felt sympathy for architects sued by unscrupulous contractors is that they are immediately in the same sort of situation as journalists, having to prove innocence at their own expense, even though in theory it is the litigant who should be proving guilt.
There are laws against phone-hacking, paying the police or other public officials for information and so on. If these laws were properly enforced, much of the disgusting behaviour of certain tabloids would not have taken place. The question, therefore, should not be how to muzzle the press from going about its business (and let’s face it, freedom includes the freedom to be irresponsible otherwise it is not freedom), but why the tabloids felt they were untouchable. Step forward the politicians who (excuse my French) licked Murdoch’s arse for decades and employed creepy oily rags like Alastair Campbell to guide them through the sewers.
If as a society we want a privacy law to protect ‘ordinary’ people from press intrusion (and I do not regard ‘celebrities’ like Stephen Fry, Hugh Grant and Max Mosley, or any politician, or newspaper editor as ordinary) then let us get on with it. The world wouldn’t end. That is very different to creating a state-backed Big Brother, whatever legal language the idea is dressed up in.
The suggestion that publications which signed up to a new regulatory regime would pay less in libel damages than those which hadn’t is a shining example of how judges, who are supposed to apply the law equally, are happy to penalise anyone who disagrees with them. Happily, David Cameron’s cringe-making texts to the former editor of The Sun do not invalidate his correct intuition that the Leveson recommendations are just no good.