ook back at the big events of the past decade and ask yourself: did we find out too much or too little of what the powerful did in our name? Did we know too much or too little about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did we enquire too much or too little about the cheating of the bankers?
When I posed this question during my testimony to the Leveson Inquiry back in January, I swear I saw the judge’s eyes roll. I fear Lord Justice Leveson had been persuaded long before that journalism was a problem for society, not part of the solution to its ills. He could have been forgiven for coming to this instant conclusion, having listened to the heart-rending testimony of Milly Dowler’s parents, or Kate and Gerry McCann, or of other victims of hounding and despicable behaviour.
Even though I have worked in the profession, or trade, for more than two decades, I hold no candle for the press as an institution. My concern is broader. Freedom of expression – the bedrock of democracy – is under threat in Britain, as it is around the globe.
Wherever you look, someone with power, somewhere in the world, is trying to prevent the truth from getting out. In dictatorships they often resort to violence. But usually those with power hide behind laws that, while technically legitimate, are designed to chill free speech.
We think such measures are the preserve of places like China and Russia. And they are. In China the media are severely censored. Dissidents are routinely jailed. Western media are blocked online when they become inconvenient, as the New York Times was recently after revealing details of premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.
In Russia, investigative journalists are killed when they find out too much. The internet is now severely restricted. Members of the punk band Pussy Riot languish in penal colonies for protesting in church.
But dangers also lurk in so-called democracies. In Greece, a magazine editor yesterday went on trial for having the temerity to publish details of the tax avoidance schemes of the super-rich, as ordinary people suffer greatly from austerity. If normal ethical standards were applied, Costas Vaxevanis would have been celebrated for his intrepid reporting. But shooting the messenger has become the norm for politicians and business leaders, as a means of diverting attention from their crimes and misdemeanours – and frightening whistleblowers and journalists. In France, presidents and ministers have for years hidden behind privacy clauses to keep their dodgy financial affairs secret. Hungary’s recent press law, requiring media outlets to be licensed, has led to a spate of overly critical editors being sacked and radio stations taken off air.
What is so dispiriting is that we in Britain appear now to be leaning in this direction. We increasingly regard free speech as a danger.
There are a number of reasons: some of it is the result of bad law; some of it is economic. Politicians, lawyers and the public are struggling to come to terms with rapid technological changes. The internet was supposed to be the vehicle that broke down old rules and hierarchies. We suddenly acquired a voice through emails, blogs and social networking. We could bear witness to events through sound recording and cameras on our mobile phones.
The power relationship shifted. Gone were the days when a mere citizen would have to send a letter to their MP, who would occasionally deign to reply. Mostly they didn’t, seeing engagement or accountability as an intrusion on their valuable time.
That has changed, thank goodness, and cannot be reversed. The moment George Osborne’s assistant queried, possibly innocently, his standard-class train ticket, that episode was in the public domain.
Yet at the same time we struggle with Twitter and Facebook and the freedoms they afford. Online, the extremely poor joke and the offensive remark have now become matters not for peer groups to sort out, but for the authorities. So the hapless young man who tweets in frustration about blowing up an airport is arrested; a stupid boy who insults the Olympic diver Tom Daley is visited by the police; and the equally pathetic young man who makes an ill-judged “joke” about the disappeared Welsh schoolgirl April Jones is taken in, too.
I am as angered by these remarks as anyone, but is it the state’s job to arbitrate matters of taste and decency? When Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, was invited on to the BBC’s Question Time a couple of years ago, to howls of outrage, I saw it as important to defend his right to appear – and to make a fool of himself, which he duly did. To misquote Voltaire, the only free speech worth defending is that of the person whose views you find most obnoxious.
Everywhere around the world, it seems, the right to take offence has been elevated into a human right. Usually, but not always, this “right” is exercised through religious belief. Most cases are seen through the prism of “insults” to Islam. But this “right” now seems to be exercised by whoever wants it.
What does all this have to do with our press? The best word I can find is “raucous”. A raucous, argumentative society is a healthy society. Of course we need laws to protect people – from child pornography to incitement to violence. We need state secrets. But the Official Secrets Act has often been used for the wrongful purpose of protecting the reputations of ministers and officials. We need anti-terrorism measures, but not the outrageous Communications Data Bill currently being discussed in Parliament, that would give not just the security services but dozens of lesser public bodies the right to demand emails and social media traffic from any citizen in the land. These plans are dangerous; they are also manna from heaven for the Russians and Chinese, who love to point to the West’s double standards when their records are held up to scrutiny.
We need libel laws, but not those that for years have indulged sheikhs, oligarchs and other super-rich figures, preventing anyone from writing about them. These laws are being changed, but I fear the end result will fall far short of the improvements the libel reform campaign I helped to lead has sought.
Throw in the economics: many newspapers have closed or been pared to the bone, particularly in the regions. Whose interests are served when local councils know that planning decisions and other dodgy dealings will go unreported? The same goes on a national scale, not just about politicians, but sports stars and their agents and businesses on the take. Investigative journalism takes time, requires patience and indulgence from editors, and costs money. That is the area that is being cut back most of all – to everyone’s detriment.
So how come a general view has been allowed to take hold that our press is out of control? The terrible acts of a few, hacking the phones of the vulnerable with no possible public interest, have handed the moral ground and political power to those who want journalists to be more “respectful”.
I have attended a number of press conferences over the years involving prime ministers and US presidents. When the two leaders marched into the room, the Americans would stand to attention; the Brits would sit sullenly. I know which I prefer.
Nobody sensible will defend the old-style boys’-club regulation of newspapers. Of course, something more vigorous must emerge from the Leveson Inquiry. But I have worked in many countries – not just under authoritarian regimes – where journalists are seduced by the offer of a seat at the top table, or are persuaded not to ask that extra question. “Go easy, we don’t want trouble” could all too easily become the mantra here. Would, I ask myself, this newspaper have had the courage to break the story about MPs’ expenses in the post-Leveson world? I would like to think so, but I’m not sure.
We all want to strike the right balance. But perfection is elusive. Forced to choose, I would rather have a public space that goes too far than one that – like so many countries around the world – is pliant in the face of power.
John Kampfner is a former editor of ‘The New Statesman’ and former chief executive of Index on Censorship