On Thursday 22, Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, wrote a piece on the Telegraph calling on the Prime Minister not to give in to demands for statutory regulation but to preserve Britain’s “317-year tradition of press freedom”. But his article fumbles the issues of power involved in the question of press regulation.
Nelson’s narrative is that journalists and politicians are at war, with the rebellious energy and noble disrespect of the press corps pitched against politicians eager to clamp down on any criticism:
“Jeremy Paxman tells how he was drawn into the trade after being told that the relationship between a journalist and politician should be that between a dog and lamp post. For generations, the lamp post has put up with this. Now it wants its revenge.”
Later, he echoes Boris Johnson’s claim at a Spectator awards show that Leveson is part of a “battle” that began with the Daily Telegraph’s detonation of the expenses scandal in 2009.
When the dog lies down with the lamp post
The problem with this is that the relationship between the press and politicians is often cosier than it appears. In their book No Expenses Spared, Robert Winnett and Gordon Rayner claim that they almost lost the expenses story to rival papers. The Sun, for example, wanted to “cherry pick” the most high-profile scandals and leave the rest alone, attacking a few individual figures while burying the evidence of endemic abuse. Other newspapers had only been interested in exposing MPs of one party. Some war. Sure enough, investigating collusion between the press and the government has been one of the main thrusts of the Leveson Inquiry. Remember David Cameron’s gift horse? Jeremy Hunt’s special relationship?
By contrast, the victims of unethical reporting have not been politicians but ordinary people. It was when the parents of murdered girls, the relatives of British soldiers and the survivors of 7/7 victims were revealed among the targets of its intrusion campaign that the real public outcry began. It was also Christopher Jeffries, the landlord who testified at Leveson, who was confined to his home by a witch hunt that eventually drew damages from eight major newspapers.
The powerful and the powerless
The only press bodies being slammed nationwide for attacking a politician are the BBC and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – because they got it wrong and smeared an innocent man, not because they stood up to power. And, as it happens, the legal establishment is united in its support for journalism which challenges the powerful. It was at Leveson’s request that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, laid out guidelines defining the ‘public interest’ and advising the CPS when not to prosecute journalists who are acting in its service.
That’s why, as our ethics chair Angela Phillips points out, nobody has taken the Telegraph to task for the legal breaches involved in that story – because it’s clearly in the public interest. And note that we at Media Reform propose a watertight statutory public interest defence – so that journalists doing important work aren’t at the mercy of discretionary prosecution.
The Leveson Inquiry exists to protect ordinary people from the power of the press, which it has too often used to exploit the powerless for profit. Editors that conflate justice for citizens with self-preservation for politicians are guilty of what they allege – of trying to keep their power without accepting the responsibility that comes with it.