What kind of a free Press do we writers want? A
totally free Press left with its own self-governing body for standards of
Or a Press without any restrictions other than the existing laws of libel?
Or a Press subject to government and legal censorship?
Think carefully before you give an opinion, for this is not a black and white
matter. There are huge benefits in having a totally free Press but there are
There are also disastrous drawbacks in having a Press subjected to Government
control and censorship.
With a censored Press you can end up like Stalinist Russia, which had two
government controlled newspapers: Izvestia and Pravda. These words
meant truth and news. Hence the Muscovites used to joke: there is no news in the
truth and there is no truth in the news.
Stanley Baldwin, regarded by some as a safe pair of hands as a Prime Minister
and by others as a pusillanimous ditherer, said that press lords were like
prostitutes – they wanted power without responsibility. He was referring in
particular to those two newspaper titans of the day, Lord Northcliffe of the
Daily Mail group and Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express. Both
achieved more for Britain than Baldwin ever did.
Another wit used to proclaim:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist,
But seeing what the man will do unbribed,
There’s no occasion to.
This debate has come about of course during the furore over phone-tapping which
led to the closure of the News of the World and huge payments made by
Rupert Murdoch’s company, News International, to alleged victims of the phone
Now we have the Leveson inquiry which in due course will report to the
Government. The good Lord Leveson has been listening to evidence from all
quarters as he delves into the word of news.
I am left with the unmistakeable impression that this has nothing to do with
whether or not we should have a free Press but is a form of revenge from MPs who
by and large were shown to be dishonest in the presentation of their expenses to
In case you have forgotten the statistics, let me remind you. Out of 646
Members of parliament only 50 minimised their expenses – and even one of those,
the saintly Vince Cable, has just been fined for not completing his tax return
This was not petty cash we were talking about. Some of them invented fictitious
mortgages which they expected you and me to pay for, another claimed for
clearing his moat while another built a house on his pond for the ducks.
Yet another had to pay back £80,000, others - but too few – were sent to jail.
Since that day members of all parties have been looking for a big stick to beat
the Press with.
The phone-tapping gave them a great excuse because stupidly the News of the
World used phone-tapping to check on victims of crime. They could have got
this information - if necessary - from orthodox reporting methods. And do not
think that the News of the World was the only newspaper to employ these
Equally, newspapers have helped many an investigation where the police have
been unable to trace criminals or solve crimes.
Modern technology has already made phone-tapping out of date. If you own a smart
phone for a reasonable price you can buy the kit to monitor anybody’s e mails.
Dodgy politicians, errant husbands or wives and other miscreants can be easily
Not only does the march of IT progress make the phone-tapping inquiry redundant,
other advances in media platforms for citizen journalists mean the days of
newspapers as we know them are numbered.
Soon we will have one tabloid paper - call it the Sun-Mirror, one middle
of the road paper – call it the Mail-Express and one heavyweight paper,
call it The Times Telegraph. This is not good news for freelancers.
It is worth quoting some of the evidence given by leading journalists to the
The most trenchant came from Kelvin MacKenzie, a former successful editor of the
Sun and now a columnist on the Daily Mail. In typical fashion he
cast doubts on Leveson producing anything worthwhile and points out that
politicians’ behaviour to press lords varies from arse kissing to arse kicking,
depending on when they want their support. That, in my experience, is a pretty
fair summing up.
Of course, super injunctions and the courts are being wrongly used to prevent
the truth coming out in the public domain. If some successful sportsman is held
up as a shining light to our young people and endorses products from football
boots to hair restorer, I think it is a matter of public interest to correct the
image if he is a lying, cheating, adulterous, tax-dodging, drug-taking imbecile.
Not that any of our shining young men qualify in all categories.
And if Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Andrew Marr and Jeremy Clarkson want to
appear whiter than white they must mend their ways, admit they are human and not
hide behind the law. Marr and Clarkson have admitted their errors.
The Associate Editor of the Sun – and a shrewd political commentator -
Trevor Kavanagh points out that but for the Free Press in the United States
Dominic Strauss Khan’s conduct, widely known among the chattering classes in
Paris, would not have come to light. It was deemed under French law to be of no
concern to the people who were going to be asked to elect him President.
Kavanagh makes the reasonable point that if people are going to persuade us to
part with our cash or give them our votes we should know something about their
Would we have wanted to have John Stonehouse, Jeremy Thorpe or John Profumo in
power if we had known what they were really like?
Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian claimed to Leveson that the laws in
Britain actually hindered investigative reporting and pointed out that in a
world league table we came in joint 28th place when it came to freedom of
Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, put things in perspective.
He roundly condemned phone tapping but pointed out that:
‘No British cities were looted, nobody died, and no banks were in danger of
collapsing and elected politicians continued to steal from the public. And
moreover the nation did not go to war.’
And yet the Leveson inquiry has wider powers than any inquiry into these
Dacre sums up neatly:
‘Am I alone in detecting the rank smell of hypocrisy and revenge in the
political class’s current moral indignation over a British Press that dared to
expose their greed and corruption?’
Well, what do you think?
Talking of greed and corruption, did you read about the Pakistani cricketers?
After the jury were out for 17 hours at Southwark Crown Court in London they
were found guilty of a match-fixing plot in a Test match against England and
Now, cricket authorities for years have suspected something like this, ever
since the disgraced South African captain Hansie Cronje was implicated. So have
the police. There were also some very strange happenings concerning a cricket
tournament in the Middle East.
Suddenly the term ‘it’s not cricket’ seems to foreshadow something much more
sinister than a batsman refusing to walk when he knows he’s edged the ball for a
The trouble stemmed from the huge illegal betting
scene on the Asian sub-continent.
Whether the cricket authorities were naïve in ignoring the implications, or
whether they did not want publicity to harm potential television rights we shall
never know, but the whole affair would have gone on – again and again – and
unpunished, had it not been for some clever investigative reporting by a Sunday
newspaper. That newspaper was the News of the World.
As we cannot trust our MPs or international cricketers I think we should be very
careful of muzzling the Press.
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