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.