As the phone hacking horror recedes further into people’s memories, 15 months on from the initial public outpouring of rage, there has been a steady stream of attacks on the Leveson Inquiry and any attempt to bring in regulation of the press – in other words, a return to normal, as you were, back to the bad old days of tabloid excess, move along now, nothing to see here and all that.
One of the biggest critics of reform is former News of the World hack Neil Wallis (surprise, surprise), currently on bail following his arrest last July. On yesterday’s Daily Politics, he debated media lawyer and key figure in the Hacked Off cammpaign Charlotte Harris – and was put right on some of the arguments the status quo brigade have been pedalling against regulation.
Rebutting the main attacks, Harris said:
“It really isn’t muzzling, it’s been a very convenient way of describing any sort of statutory underpinning to law by saying that this is an attack on free speech and somehow it’s going to involve some form of censorship. There isn’t a free press at the moment and that was very dramatically seen when the press decided they wouldn’t report on their own scandal.
“It was in the public interest to know about phone hacking and yet something that should have been printed and would have actually sold papers wasn’t in their commercial interests - suddenly there was silence on it until they were forced to. The fact is, what that shows is that newspapers are censored; they are censored by their proprietors and by their commercial interests…
“If you have statutory regulation that is independent then you don’t have this self-censorship of the press that emanates from them. What you need is to have something like the editors’ code, which newspapers sign up to, but rather than the editors and people with commercial interests deciding whether or not that code has been adhered to you have independent regulators like you do with doctor and lawyers.”
While on the actual substance and impact of what may be proposed, she added:
“What I would like it to be, and there are several models, there’s the editors code - that would gave a statutory underpinning so that we can all have a conversation where there aren’t these dramatic statements about censorship by you [Wallis] and people are waving a banner of free speech when we all know it’s nothing to do with free speech. If you really believed in free speech then you wouldn’t be so frightened to obey these laws.
“So in terms of editorial decisions why are you saying these decisions would be interfered with if they simply had to obey a code that they signed up to in the first place voluntarily?… Are you saying that we couldn’t get the good stories? That still the papers wouldn’t be able to get the good stories? ITV managed to uncover the Jimmy Saville scandal and the broadcast media are heavily regulated.”
With the like of Neil Wallis and Boris Johnson, in his error-strewn Telegraph column yesterday, turning up the anti-regulation dial, Leveson will need to hold his nerve and stand firm – and the Lib Dems will have to ensure the Tories don’t wriggle back on reform, back the hackers and screw the victims.