Well, it was only a matter of time.
The tedious, long-running, press-bashing, minor-celeb tufty hunt that is the Leveson Inquiry has finally wrought a backlash.
And leading the charge are the lefty-libertarians at spiked, which has launched The Counter-Leveson Inquiry.
In his article announcing the launch, spiked editor (and Telegraph blogger) Brendan O’Neill notes that ones re-opening the inquiry on Monday, Lord Leveson mention he found ‘publicly expressed concerns’ about the inquiry ‘troubling’.
The most remarkable thing about Leveson’s admission to feeling troubled by public criticisms is that, sadly, there has been very little public criticism of his showtrial of the tabloids. You could count on one hand, or at a stretch two hands, the number of journalists and politicians who have dared to question the right of one judge to marshal celebrities and coppers to the cause of redefining the ethics of the press.
Quite so. There has been the usual drooling over the attacks on the Murdoch tabloids by the more totalitarian-inclined of our “liberal” lickspittle media – The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC etc – but the rest of the mainstream media has generally cowered in the corner, with only the Mail‘s Paul Dacre putting up any semblance of a fight in what is really a kangaroo court.
And it is a kangaroo court. Witnesses line up and grab their allotted 15 minutes of fame – or, the case of faded celebrities and failed politicians, to grab another 15 minutes of celebrity – making whatever allegations fits their agenda of vengeance, outrage, paranoia and shamelessness. There is no forensic cross-examination of these allegations such as would occur in a court of law, either criminal, where the criteria is beyond reasonable count, or civil, where the criteria is the balance of probabilities.
Instead, they are met with gentle questions eliciting their feelings, impressions and thoughts more appropriate for a student counselling session than a formal, quasi-judicial inquiry. For many of the witnesses, this is true nirvana: not only do have a spotlight of a softer, more flattering hue cast upon them, they get a free ego-massage thrown in too.
One troubling aspect of the Levenson inquiry that O’Neill doesn’t comment on in his article – strangely, since it’s one of his hobby-horses – is that by almost solely attacking the tabloids, this is really just another extended prole-bash. The tabloids cater for a sizeable readership who loves celeb gossip; some of the tabs catered to this demand by nefarious means, by illicit phone-hacking or paying cops for tip-offs of celeb shenanigans etc. Of that there’s no doubt.
But hang on: during the Leveson recess, we had the unedifying sight of the usual suspects – the aforementioned Guardian, Independent, BBC etc – drooling over “hacked” documents “proving” that the right-wing US Heartland Institute, which takes a robust anti-man-made global warming line, along with many other activities, was plotting to use the untold millions it gets from Big Oil to foil pro-climate changee scientists by “dissuading teachers from teaching science”.
The fact the central “strategy” document was a crudely cobbled-together fake and that the genuine documents – which were blandly routine meeting reports that hardly showed Heartland wallowing around in Big Oil bucks like Scrooge McDuck – had been obtained by fraud by pro-climate change activist, Peter Gleick, who has since confessed to the phishing, though not to the faking.
That they had tacitly supported and thereby endorsed illegal activities because it suited their news agenda in this instance did not seem to faze then usual suspects. Indeed, the Guardian even ran an extraordinary piece by The Ethics of Climate Change author James Garvey in which he said:
Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.
So: the ends justifies the means, eh? But only if it’s the Guardian’s ends, it would seem. It certainly doesn’t apply to those filthy red-tops’ ends. Some may call that moral relativism. I call it rank hypocrisy.
But don’t expect such high-minded shenanigans to get even a mention at Leveson. It’s the tabloids which are in the firing line, and while it’s them, the usual suspects will happily cheer the inquiry on.
But O’Neill is surely right to note that whether they are active cheerleaders or cowering curs, mainstream journalists are oblivious to the bonfire which is being built under their feet:
It is alarming that, in a country where the poet John Milton demanded freedom of the press more than 350 years ago, and where many other writers and activists subsequently fought tooth-and-catapult to expel state forces from the worlds of writing and publishing, so many should now acquiesce to an inquiry which gives a judge and his chums the power to tell the media what its morals should be.
O’Neill ends his call to arms with another fiery quote from Milton which I urge you to check out for yourself. Because whatever you might think of their views on other topics (which I myself have a love/hate relationship with), on this issue, the spiked gang is definitely on the side of the angels.
So, Jeremy Clarkson and his merry pranksters from Top Gear are in the soup again, this time over the programme’s”India Special” broadcast twice over the Christmas break.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Indian High Commission is demanding an apology from the BBC over the programme, claiming Top Gear’s producer Chris Hale misled it over the eventual nature of the programme when seeking help in its making.
“The programme was replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity. This is not clearly what we expect of the BBC. I write this to convey our deep disappointment over the documentary for its content and the tone of the presentation,” the letter from some mysteriously unnamed (at least unnamed in the Telegraph’s report) “diplomat” rather pompously puts it.
On the one hand, this report can be seen as just another case of the on-going BBC-bashing by the press, of which Clarkson et al are currently the main whipping boys. Now I have nothing against BBC-bashing: it’s an entirely honourable profession. But I do think it odd that Clarkson seems to be the main target, since his programme, aimed at petrol-heads of both sexes who enjoy a dash of schoolboyish, lavatorial humour obviously strikes a chord which a large section of viewing public, both here and abroad (it’s one of the BBC’s biggest exports). I’d have thought there were other, more legitimate targets in the BBC’s often skewed output that were worthy of attention. Quite why the Telegraph, Mail, Independent, Express etc so relentlessly target an ultimately lightweight programme which tickles the funny bone of such a large proportion of their potential readership baffles me.
Perhaps the fact that he also writes for the Sunday Times and the Sun makes Clarkson such an irresistible target, combining as he does the chance of not only a spot of BBC-bashing but Murdoch-bashing as well.
The other point worth noting that if the Indian diplomats really thought that the resulting Top Gear programme would be a po-faced travelogue extolling the beauty of the Indian scenery, friendliness of its people and the stupendous fabulousness of its automative industry, they betray a naivety and an ignorance that makes you wonder how they ever managed to pass the Indian civil service exams to become diplomats in the first place. Surely they must have seen the programme before? And surely that would have given them some clue as to what the likely result would be?
That naivety and ignorance is betrayed by the comments of one – again, curiously unnamed – diplomat to the Telegraph:
“We understand the free press – they are welcome to explain and to challenge as long as it is fair and above the belt. Can this pass as acceptable journalism?”
No sir/madam: you obviously do not understand the free press if that is what you believe. In countries where there is freedom of the press, media outlets may posit themselves as being “fair and above the belt” for whatever reason: a sense of smug superiority and higher purpose, perhaps, or simply because they believe that such a position gives them a commercial advantage over more blatently biased competitors.
But there is nothing explicit or implicit in the concept of “a free press” that makes being “fair and above the belt” mandatory.
The Times’ columnist Bernard Levin put it best in 1980, responding to the Master of the Rolls Lord Denning’s comment that “a free press must be a responsible press”.
Summoning his most orotund, magisterial manner, the man who often put the thunder into “The Thunderer” proclaimed:
It cannot be emphasised too strongly nor indeed put too extravagantly, that the press has no duty to be responsible at all, and it will be an ill day for freedom if it should ever acquire one. The press is not the Fourth Estate; it is not part of the constitutional structure of the country; it is not, and must never be, governed by any externally imposed rules other than the law of the land.
Tim Worstall makes a similar point:
…freedom of the press does indeed allow you to use fairness and above the beltness as a positioning exercise, sure, but it doesn’t in fact require you to do so. Which is rather the point of that “free” bit in there, d’ye see?
Indeed. We may humour ourselves that the best press is one that is fair, above the belt, temperate, reasonable, balanced, responsible etc – and of course, the media outlet we currently work for is all of these things, while its competitors are hopelessly skewed by hidden agenda and almost criminal bias – but they are not mandatory attributes of a free press.
Levin goes even further to question whether they are even desirable attributes:
…we [the press and media] are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.
Stanley Baldwin’s famous dictum about the press barons – “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot” – is a good soundbite on the desirable attributes of power, but has nothing to do with the desirable nature of a free press.
For some years, I’ve argued that the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square should be occupied by a statue of a great man, Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian civil engineer who single-mindedly cleared central London of its slums, created the embankments and Battersea (and other) parks and rid London of the great pestilence of cholera forever. The capital still relies on his sewers today. And they still work.
But increasingly, I’ve come to the conclusion – a difficult one for a New Zealander – that the honoured place should go to an Australian: Rupert Murdoch. For he is the only one who has carried the robust free speech traditions of Cobbett, Horne Tooke, Hazlett, Paine, Johnson and Coleridge into the 21st-century – and willingly paid for it, often to his cost – when the panty-waisted likes of Rusbridger (minor), Toynbee, Thompson, Hari, Snow, Kelner et al stood around saying “oooh, let’s play nice!”, so politically correct they shit where they stand lest they befoul minority toilet bowls.
Don’t get me wrong: Murdoch has his faults. He really needs to see “man made” global warming for the expensive, anti-scientific scam it is, for instance. But on many matters – many of them important, such as freedom of speech – he is on the side of angels.
I’m not going to comment directly on the news that the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, has brought contempt of court charges against the Sun and Daily Mirror over their Joanna Yeates coverage, since the matter is now clearly sub judice, other than to raise a quizzical eyebrow that a certain national daily newspaper we might all have expected to be included has not been. But the matter is now firmly one for m’lud.
Instead, I wish to turn to a particular instance of journalistic history. By happy coincidence and through the auspices of the Raynes Park Public Library, I happen to be reading Judith Flanders’ rather good The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. I’m currently engrossed in Chapter Two, Trial by Newspaper, in which she outlines a particularly juicy and sensational murder, that of William Weare, on or about October 24, 1823 (so it actually preceded the Victorian age by 14 years).
Briefly, the facts of the case were that the victim, who claimed to be a solicitor who lived in Lyon’s Inn (once an Inn of Chancery), but who seems to have earned his living through more rakishly Regency occupations such as waitering, billiards-making, gambling and promoting crooked fights, fell in with John Thurtell, a failed mercenary (during the Napoleonic Wars), failed cloth merchant, failed publican and failed gambler, but who considered himself a “man of the fancy” – ie, a prizefight promoter. A star-cross’d bout, as Shakespeare might have said if he were a man of that particular fancy.
Weare arranged to go for a weekend’s shooting with Thurtell and his friend Joseph Hunt at Gill’s Hill, now part of Radlett, Hertfordshire, staying in the cottage of William Probert, a spirit merchant who seems to have run a lucrative sideline supplying dodgy credit. It was later alleged that Thurtell was the perpetrator of a murderous conspiracy involving Hunt and Probert to kill Weare and relieve him of the enormous wealth (about £2000) he was rumoured to habitually carry about with him.
The weekend seems to have run with all the smoothness of a Ben Travis farce – Thurtell arrived before Hunt, whom Probert had dropped off at an inn to await Thurtell, who was waiting for Hunt at the cottage etc – but it ended in tragedy for Weare, who was shot in the face, then bludgeoned to death before having his throat slit, being stuffed in a sack and dumped in a nearby pond. This was not the end of his indignities: the perpetrators later recovered the body and then dumped it in a pond in Elstree. The proceeds were rather less than the expected £2000 windfall – about £15, plus a few trinkets.
The police – in the form of the Bow Street Runners – arrested Thurtell, Hunt and Probert. Hunt quickly grassed, and fingered Thurtell as the main man. You can read the rest of the case in Flanders’ book, or, if you must, on Wikipedia, but what I’m interested in is one particular newspaper’s coverage of the case at this stage: ie, after arrest, but before trial.
This newspaper, says Flanders, ran a “stream of vitriolic – and completely unsubstantiated – stories” about Thurtell. On November 6, for example, it said: “Thurtell is reported to have been with Wellington’s troops at the siege of San Sebastian, where he lurked behind the lines to murder and rob a fallen officer.” According to the newspaper, Thurtell boasted:
I thought by the look of him that he was a nob, and must have some blunt [money] about him; so I tucked my sword in his ribs, and settled him; and found a hundred and forty doubloons in his pocket!
Readers commented that 140 doubloons would be more than a soldier could easily carry from a battlefield. At this remove it’s hard to tell, since at the time “doubloon” seems to have referred to any gold coin of Spanish origin. But it’s interesting that the newspaper’s readers were prepared at this stage to call it up on what they judged to be over-excitement in what was clearly an excitable age.
Not that it stopped this particular paper: it also reported that an airgun in the shape of a walking stick had been found in Thurtell’s lodgings. Nothing more was ever heard of this cunning device, but no matter: the paper later reported that a James Wood, supposedly Thurtell’s rival for the fair hand of Miss Caroline Noyes, the sister of Probert’s wife, had been evilly lured into a trap in a tenement where he was attacked with a pair of dumbbells – and, wouldn’t you know it – such dumbbells had been found in that building.
As if that were not proof enough, the paper reported that Probert had testified (note that this is still before the trial) that Thurtell “had picked out 17 persons of substance that he intended to rob and murder, and that [Weare] was one of them.” The other 16 obviously had a lucky escape “from the late horrid conspiracy”, the paper noted.
Another who had a lucky escape was one Sparks, who had declined to go into business with Thurtell, thus evading by the skin of his teeth “a horrible doom, which otherwise, in all probability, awaited him”.
As far as this paper was concerned, it was all done and dusted when a week later, and still to come to trial, it pronounced Thurtell, Hunt and Probert as “the guilty culprits.”
The question of the day is: which newspaper is this?
Clue: It’s not the Sun, nor the Daily Mirror, nor the other paper I hinted at previously. None of them were around at the time.
Award yourself a fluffy toy if you guessed it was this.
FOOTNOTE: The Weare murder trial inspired many a rhyme, something that is sadly lacking today. One such was:
They cut his throat from ear to ear,
His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare,
He lived in Lyons Inn.
William McGonagall eat your heart out.
The Thurtell case is also memorable for the testimony of Mrs Probert who, when asked “Was supper postponed?”, replied “No, it was pork.”
An interesting photo from Friday’s Metro London edition:
Funny how a much admired/despised Sun front page about a long ago dispute in a territory of which we know very little should still resonate so many years on and so many thousands of miles away.
The traditional media silly season has kicked off a bit earlier this year. Rather than waiting for the traditional starting gunshot that is Parliament dissolving, packing its buckets and spades and heading off for the hols, the media is indulging itself in a frenzy of increasingly hyperactivity over Wills ‘n’ Kate, Cam ‘n’ Clegg (uncunningly disguised as the AV referendum) and the Greatest Threat to Western Civilisation As We Know It Since The Last One, the super-injunction.
Of course, after Kate has made an honest man of Wills this week, and the country decides on AV next week, that more or less leaves the latter to run and run. And, as they say in Hollywood, it sure got legs. The trouble is, one leg points one way, to which the other is directly opposed.
With the childish hyperbole that is increasingly the norm among today’s kidult university-educated journalists (even on the increasingly lightweight “heavies”), all injunctions are “super”, even when they’re not, some are even “hyper”, even though there has only ever been one hyper-injunction (a word made up by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming) and that had nothing to do with privacy or the media per se, and the media has closed ranks to fulminate against, in words of Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, “Amoral judges, shameless celebrities and a Britain that’s coming close to a police state”, with that ever-favourite judicial bugbear, Eady J, coming in for special attention (such as here in the Telegraph and here in the Indy). In short, Their Honours are accused of making up privacy law as they go along, without recourse to any legislation enacted by Parliament. Those bewigged bench-entrenched bastards.
Whew. There are several aspects of media law swirling around here, some relating to privacy law and others to defamation law and a few relating to both which, either through ignorance or intent, the national media are conflating into one.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to at least pick apart some of these threads and make an attempt to sort them all out.
And while doing so, it’s also worthwhile to adopt the adage of that wise old bird Confucius: “Above all, call each thing by its correct name.”