Britain's free press cringes in anticipation of coming regulation; plutocrats and oligarchs celebrate

Writing in The Spectator, Kirsty Walker describes the chilling effect the UK's Leveson Inquiry (which is investigating illegal phone/email interception and systematic harassment by UK papers, especially tabloids) is having on legitimate reporting. The UK is already the best place in the world for rich and powerful people who want to use libel law to silence unflattering accounts of their actions. But with Leveson heading for its conclusion and the spectre of official press regulation (through which the government would license reporters and news outlets, and could remove those licenses at will), reporters and their editors are under increasing pressure from the world's dictators and local plutocrats.

Before the Leveson inquiry, I had received less than a dozen PCC complaints in my career and never had one upheld. But when I left, complaints were coming in at a rate of at least one a month. All required mini-investigations. Even foreign dictatorships know how to frighten Fleet Street. The last complaint I was asked to deal with was from a dictator, the King of Bahrain, who didn’t like the way I referred to criticism of his regime following the deaths of 40 people in anti-government protests.

Like 99.99 per cent of British journalists, I never hacked a phone or bribed a public official. During my long career in the House of Commons, I tried my utmost to be fair. If a story didn’t quite stack up, I would abandon it. A small handful of journalists did hire private investigators to do some horrific things, but there are laws in this country to deal with them.

How do we know that Lord Leveson’s report will encourage the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories? Because the prospect of it has done so already. How do we know that an elite will attempt to decide what it is appropriate for the rest of us to read about over our cornflakes? Because Leveson is already doing exactly that. This is the judge who read a 200-word article in the Times about how The Thick of It was planning to satirise him in one episode — and promptly asked the editor of that paper whether it was ‘appropriate’ for him to run the piece. It is all too easy to guess what a judge with such an attitude to newspapers will do for press freedom.

What the papers won’t say (Thanks, Marilyn!)


  1. On the other hand, there are a lot of newspapers and journalists who made ordinary people’s lives hell just to sell newspapers and to further the ends of their proprietors. If they are not better regulated they will continue to do this, just as bankers will continue to try to screw ordinary people for their own profit without proper regulation.

    Some proprietors want the freedom to make money and to have power; it’s nothing to do with freedom of speech. 

      1. This guy:

        Victimised by the newspapers for a crime he didn’t commit.

      2. Ask Kate and Gerry McCann, damned for the horrendous crime of only breaking down in tears when the photographers weren’t present.

      3. And plenty of people that are known to the public through their work – I don’t think it’s fair to categrise them as ‘not normal’, just because you know who they are.

  2. No mention, it seems, of Rupert Murdoch, whose intentional manipulation of UK press coverage over the years to promote his own damaging agenda is hugely responsible for the press having few friends to turn to in this situation.

  3.  So some people in the UK will end up relying on American newspapers to tell them what is happening in their own country? Gee, that sounds backwards.

  4. Funny how minor celebs relationship difficulties and substance misuse were fair game but we know nothing of the shortcomings of newspaper  owners or directors on their boards or editors or columnists etc!
    When Kirsty Walker provides full and frank  disclosure  of anything in her personal life that may help to  sell a newspaper then her views may be considered.

  5. There is currently no effective law or market force restraining newspapers from printing things which are provably lies. This is bad for us as a society and needs to change. We don’t need (and won’t have) some elaborate censorship system. Under no circumstances should anybody be restrained from printing a story which is plausibly true. But when the story is a lie, and the newspaper knows it’s a lie, and we can prove it’s a lie, then they shouldn’t get to print it anyway, and if it turns out to be a lie after they printed it, then they should have to print a retraction. That’s not very complicated or dangerous.

    We do not need (and should not have) expensive private lawsuits for this. We just need a replacement for the PCC which serves society instead of the newspapers. The Leveson report is expected to say precisely that.

          1. certain?  i’m not sure what the weathers like above the arctic circle, but odds say you’re likely to be wrong…somewhere.  at least for certain values of yesterday and morning.

    1. Clearly this is my across the pond mentality, but do you really trust your government commissions?  Are you so sure that these commissions can be free of political motivation and not use the power they are handed for anything other than punishing news papers when they print intentional lies?

      The US has almost no press regulation and we have no (enforceable) libel and slander laws to speak of.  Yet, we don’t have the same sort of uproar over the press.  People complain about the press being shallow or biased, but I have never heard any talk of people wanting to censor it.  I think the issue with the British press is a cultural problem of some flavor.  I am skeptical using the sledge hammer of law is going to fix it, and very certain that your fucked up libel and slander laws that already have a chilling effect are going to have even more of a chilling effect if they get stronger.

      1. The UK press has committed literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of actual crimes. We’re not talking about Fox News lying about everything. We’re talking about hacking phones, bribing police and bribing government officials. Projecting the US press’s behavior onto the UK’s isn’t useful.

      2. Where’s this business about libel laws getting stronger come from? The libel laws are currently being reformed to make them considerably weaker.

        As it happens, yes, I trust a relatively independent third party regulator, subject to court oversight, a lot more than I trust the current system: editors are riddled with political motivation, routinely print stories telling people to vote for parties or candidates, and ultimately serve the needs of their corporate owners.

        Those are the options on the table. Currently, the corporations are in charge and abusing their position. We do not have the ability to place the news media in the hands of some unshakeable paragons of incorruptibility, because no such people exist.

        I think the issue with the British press is a cultural problem of some flavor

        Oh yes, that’s quite an easy one. Although it’s economic as much as cultural. The problem is that it is possible for an extremely wealthy American plutocrat to purchase most of the UK newspapers, and he’s done so.

        The reason why we’re inclined to trust a lightweight regulatory system is because that’s precisely the basis on which the BBC operates, and they’re usually held up as one of the cleanest news outlets in the world.

    1.  finally! someone who sees my point of view about these loathsome press peoples  –Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

    2.  Let’s please try to remember that it was a couple of journalists and one newspaper that brought all these abuses to light in the first place.

  6. People with long memories might remember the then Culture Secretary David Mellor saying in ***1989*** that the press ‘was drinking in the last chance saloon.’ 

    We were promised the PCC would act to restrain the press, in the end it turned out to be a paper tiger – which would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic – governed by Paul Dacre – editor of the Daily Mail – one of the papers that has so coarsened and devalued journalism in the UK.

    The British press has been given opportunity after opportunity to reform, they’ve been cajoled and sucked up to by generation after generation of politicians; and the only result has been that they’ve continued to abuse their privileges. They’ve ruined innocent people’s lives, they’ve corrupted our politics, they’ve interfered in the judicial process, they’ve protected the rich and powerful, and by printing lies and inflaming public opinion they’ve even killed people. 

    The British press has shown itself unwilling to govern and reform itself; it’s time for regulation.

    1. it might be time for prosecution, but do you really trust your government with the power to silence your press?  that historically never been a recipe for happy fun times.

  7. If the King of Bahrain threatens to sue for libel, what’s needed is reform of British libel laws, not Chicken Little worries about the results of an inquiry where nearly everyone on the press side was revealed to have behaved badly at some point.

    Yeah, it’s going to sting a bit, but reform of the PCC, for example, isn’t the first step on the road to total press censorship. Neither is various criminal charges against reporters and editors who felt they had a free reign while the PCC was Fleet Street’s tame poodle.

  8. “How do we know that Lord Leveson’s report will encourage the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories? Because the prospect of it has done so already.”

    Ah, yes, so that’s how Jimmy Savile did it.  It was the threat of Leveson that caused the tabloids to fail to print any rumours for the past 30 years.  

    “Britain has become a place where the rich, famous and well-connected can take newspapers to court (with the help of no-win, no-fee lawyers)”

    Ah, yes, all those rich people using no-win no-fee lawyers.  

    “During my long career in the House of Commons, I tried my utmost to be fair.”

    “… Chris Huhne’s partner, Carina Trimingham, who took the Daily Mail to court for harassment because the paper had repeatedly referred to her as a bisexual — which, by the way, she is …”

    Ah, yes, that sounds fair.  Because everyone needs to know the genders of an MP’s partner’s partners.

    Kirsty Walker may have left the Daily Mail, but she appears to still subscribe to their attitude towards evidence, truthiness and morality.

  9. “Like 99.99 per cent of British journalists, I never hacked a phone or bribed a public official.”

    From Information Commissioner’s Office report “What Price Privacy Now” and on the hacking activities of just one single private investigation agency employed by the press:

    Publication – Number of transactions positively identified – Number of journalists/clients using services

    Daily Mail-952-58
    Sunday People-802-50
    Daily Mirror-681-45
    Mail on Sunday-266-33
    News of the World-228-23
    Sunday Mirror-143-25
    Best Magazine-134-20
    Evening Standard-130-1

    And so it continues to list pretty much every news outlet 

    We know the press also used the services of Glenn Mulcaire. It’s a fair assumption that other investigation agencies were used as well.

    The press will view the Leveson recommendations like a bowl of cold sick, so expect more “it will mean the end of press freedom” articles, as they fight for the right to carry on bugging dead children’s phones, hacking into policemen’s emails etc in the search for a good story.

  10. This article does indeed reveal all that is worrying about the Leveson inquiry, though perhaps not in the manner Kirsty Walker intends.  For what it’s worth, I’m in no way supportive of the idea of Government press regulation.

    But then, of course, we haven’t actually had the results of the enquiry yet.  We don’t know what will be suggested, and nothing has actually changed.  Yet here is Walker, briefing that it has already, magically, transformed the face of reporting, and that the outcome of the enquiry is a forgone conclusion.  Leveson has not reported, and the outcome is already condemned.Which is a standard Daily Mail/ UK tabloid tactic.

    Walker reports that in her career at the Mail she was receiving very few complaints to the PCC, but after Leveson one a month.  (It is unclear whether the latter figure is her personally, or the paper in total).  Rather than evidence of the malign nature of Leveson, perhaps this is rather more accurately a portrayal of how hopeless people felt it was to make a complaint to the PCC pre-Leveson.  (Particularly with respect to the Mail where Paul Dacre, its editor, held a number of positions within the PCC, latterly the chair of the code of practice committee.)

    She is being, at best, disingenuous with her description of the Carina Trimingham stuff – the issue wasn’t that they said she was bisexual.  Trimingham had complained instead that it was an invasion of her privacy, and that by mocking her sexuality (“comedy lesbian from central casting” was one line used) she was being harassed.  She lost as the judge felt that sleeping with a politician essentially invalidated your right not to get such abuse.  No-one, to my knowledge, debated whether the statement that she was bisexual was actually true.  

    Walker is encouraging good people such as yourself to pass judgement on a process that hasn’t yet finished.  I don’t think its unreasonable to suggest she might have mixed motivations for doing so.  The libel laws are a different issue entirely, and I’d agree they are somewhat wanting. Wait and see what Leveson says, then by all means condemn it from an informed decision…

  11. Cory,

    I’d agree with many of the other comments here. These so-called fears having nothing to do with freedom of the press and everything to do with Fleet Street coming to realise that after decades of the toothless PCC the behaviour of the major papers has become so corrupt and cynical that Parliament might actually give the little people a right of reply.

    If you haven’t read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News I’d highly recommend it. True, most British journalists aren’t corrupt, but an awful lot of them are underpaid, overworked or just lazy and inept, and the drive for circulation and advertising revenue has led to investigative journalism being replaced by tabloid (and even broadsheet) bullying. When newspapers are lying in court to crush bloggers (the Nightjack case) we have a serious problem.

    Whatever the flaws in UK libel laws* – and there are plenty of them – such laws don’t seem to constrain our papers to any great extent. Yes, tabloids have been ordered to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of pounts in damages, but is that a real deterrent to a vast media empire?

    Let’s hear what the Leveson Report actually has to say before we fall for the FUD from Fleet Street.

    *EDIT As has been noted, more correctly English libel laws.

  12. What UK libel laws? I presume you mean the libel laws of England and Wales. The law of defamation in Scotland is quite different, and damages are much lower.

    1. I’m not sure if you’re referring to Cory’s post or my comment, but you’re right – and as an English lawyer, I’m very aware of the difference. If I use the term ‘UK law’ when I’m talking about areas of law that are domestic to England and Wales only, it’s because to most non-UK readers the difference in legal systems isn’t as well-known as it should be, and you can even come across as a little-Englander who is assumed to be using ‘English’ as a synonym for ‘British’ if you talk about the English legal system.

      (It’s even more confusing when you discuss intellectual property law, where it is meaningful to talk about the UK legal position as most of the statutes apply to the UK as a whole and the Scottish courts have almost invariably followed English common law if necessary. I actually did my LLM in IP and IT law at Edinburgh, despite having a degree in English law and then going on to practice in England.)

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