Rank hypocrisy in debate on press freedom

By Jane West

In the furore over the Tories’ retreat on the Leveson enquiry one thing is clear: the Tories are bound hand and foot to the media moguls that own Fleet St and the pundits and hacks that do their bidding.

The one thing it is not about is ‘press freedom’, thrown about hysterically in recent days by those defending the absolute right of the media to decide for itself what level of lying, prying and spying should be deemed acceptable.

Pompous Tories and lick-spittle media-types have frantically warned of an alleged threat to ‘our hard won press freedoms’ from a coalition of pinko-liberals and red-blooded socialists who aim to use Leveson as the thin-end of the wedge of a state-media dictatorship.

State intervention to curtail the abuse of rights is accepted in other areas, so why not in the role of the press?

Our right to do what we like in our own homes is curtailed by laws restricting our impact on others – noise levels, rubbish disposal, other nuisances.

That other great liberal right – freedom of speech – is curtailed by, for example, the law against incitement to racial hatred. Only the fascists declare this has undermined the right to freedom of speech.

In these and other cases, the law curtails absolute freedom along the lines of the principle set out by JS Mill in ‘On Liberty’: ‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

That is exactly the point in relation to the current debate on freedom of the press. Leveson proposed a statutory framework to allow intervention when what the press wants to do causes ‘harm to others’, whether through inaccurate salacious or scandal-mongering stories, phone-hacking, prurient and over-intrusive enquiries, harassment of individuals who won’t co-operate and so on.

This would place the judgement of whether or not people are harmed by the intrusions of the media in the hands of society as a whole – expressed inadequately but more inclusively through the legal system than left to the one-sided views of a handful of proprietors and editors.

Of course, the Tories, being hypocrites and having no commitment to social and moral liberalism in general, are often the first to call for draconian legal measures against those opposing cuts, wars or airports, for example. We don’t hear so much from them about our ‘hard won freedom to protest’.

But the media is overwhelmingly on their side, which is why they will go to hell in a handcart defending the freedoms of Murdoch, Rothermere and Desmond.