Against Leveson – Tories go from nasty to cuddly

Cross-posted from Lewisham NUJ

Things have come to a pretty weird pass when the loudest voices in favour of freedom of expression are those of Conservative politicians such as the often soggy David Cameron, and the rightwing ideologue Michael Gove. And then there are liberal Tory think tanks such as Bright Blue, which appears now to be in strategic alliance with Index on Censorship against Leveson.

Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes articulates the fears of many regarding the widely anticipated outcome of the Leveson Inquiry, and she looks plaintively to the prime minister and his colleagues to protect us. Hughes argues that even a “light” form of state regulation – or, to use the lingo current within the National Union of Journalists, “statutory underpinning” – would be bad news for press freedom…

“[T]his would be the thin end of the wedge — introducing government control over how the press can behave — a development which would risk taking the UK in the direction of Hungary with its increased state intervention in the media. Tougher, more effective independent regulation of the British press is surely the direction of travel. But if Leveson goes down the statutory route, Cameron needs to stand up for the basic principles of press freedom — journalists cannot hold government (and opposition) to account if government in the end determines how the press is controlled.”

Comparing the UK with a state the increasingly authoritarian policies of which give EU officials sleepless nights may seem a little extreme, but Hughes has a point. Even if the regulatory system that emerges from Leveson has no statutory power to interfere in editorial matters, we are likely to see increased self-censorship by press and broadcasting media.

I refer above to former journalist and now cabinet minister Michael Gove, and it is worth recalling exactly what he has said about press freedom. Specifically, Gove has referred to…

“…a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson. Free speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.”

Such talk didn’t go down well with Lord Justice Leveson, but it needed to be said, and for this we should be grateful to our former colleague. What bothers me is that it is being said most forcefully by a representative of a party that is, if not nastily authoritarian, at the very least prescriptive and patrician in its social outlook.

Where is the left and centre in this debate? And where is the NUJ?