Press freedom in three simple sentences

So, the Queen and The Sun, eh? Just goes to show how much has changed in the three years since the Leveson Report was published.

It also goes to show that Leveson was, in reality, just a freak show. Nothing much was going to change.

Those things uncovered at Leveson which repel decent people were already against the law. Phone hacking? Illegal. Bribing policemen for information? Illegal. Even the public exposure of innocent people as murder suspects will have their day in court. Joanna Yates’ landlord, the beleaguered Christopher Jefferies, was paid libel damages by eight newspapers.

So how, exactly, do you enshrine in law that which is already on the statute book? Miscreant journalists have, after all, gone to jail, although not enough of them and, so far, not one editor (a news editor doesn’t count). We also need more policemen in jail for breaking the first rule of the British Justice System – innocent until proven guilty.

On the other side of the argument, if a new statute is not the answer, how, if it has no legal power, do you structure an independent body that will give the public what it wants? Journalists and editors have no shame. When they are found out, they start crying about freedom, democracy and speaking truth to power.

But who speaks truth to their power? These acts that have so brought the press into disrepute, sanctioned by editors and carried out by journalists, attack the very freedoms they profess to hold so dear. The Sun’s brazen attempt to politicise The Queen (somewhat aided and abetted by fellow-Murdoch paper The Sunday Times) shows that arrogance has not been remotely rowed back.

We have a press that has habitually broken the law but has not, despite Leveson, really been held to account. Such is the power of the press that it can, seemingly, withstand any attack on its probity. “Power,” as Stanley Baldwin said, “without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

This power is strong enough to corrupt the very people who ought, when the law is broken, to be free to investigate without fear or favour. But police forces up and down the country are complicit, so must fear exposure when it comes to investigating law-breaking by journalists.

What to do? Lawyers will, given the chance, do what lawyers always do – make a breeze block of a law where a simple fridge note is all that’s needed.

In America, press freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Therefore, American law says – in a single sentence – that under no circumstances can Government interfere with press freedom to investigate or publish.

Is it beyond the wit of our own lawmakers (Parliament) to table a motion for a First Amendment style statute here, but one that takes into account the predicament we are in? Here’s what it might look like, in three simple sentences.

  1. It is enshrined in our law that Government is prohibited from infringing on the freedom of the press to investigate and publish.
  2. For its part, the press should investigate and publish in accordance with the existing laws of The United Kingdom.
  3. The (yet to be formed independent complaints commission) is bound in law to make officers of the law aware of any illegal or criminal activity committed in pursuit of any story.

Does that cover it? Don’t let the lawyers near it. It will become a 1,000 page document.

Meanwhile, if Leveson made one error – and he did, and it was enormous – it is that he exonerated police pretty much en bloc from any culpability. The police are so brazen in their behaviour that they hide in plain sight. How do we think – right in the middle of the Leveson Inquiry – the press got hold of the story that Andrew Mitchell allegedly called two police officers ‘plebs’? In one exquisitely perfect storm, the police and the press gave Leveson and the Government two fingers.

And yet on they go. Cliff Richard, Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall – in fact complaints about police leaks to the press tripled, according to UK Press Gazette, in a single year; the year the Leveson enquiry started. The complaints didn’t significantly fall until last year. And these are just the leaks that have come to light and drawn complaints.

There is a chain here, and one of the links needs to be broken. The easiest link to break is with the police. Any story appearing in the media which is unethically police-sourced should be subject to an immediate enquiry. The chain of information will be so clear that all officers involved should be instantly dismissed and all pension rights withdrawn.

Faced with this sort of draconian consequence, the source of these stories will quickly dry up. Then, having no horse in the race, the police will be more willing – not to say able – to investigate press illegality.

So: we break the chain of corruption.

We put three sentences on the statute book.

And we make the independent complaints body interactive with the law when the law has been broken.

It couldn’t be simpler.

Unfortunately, we don’t do simple any more.

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