7.15pm A full house here at the IET in Savoy Place – our free press debate, sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, has been a sell-out. A stunning venue and an outstanding lineup. For the motion: Guido Fawkes, Richard Littlejohn and Tory MP John Whittingdale. Against: Max Mosley, Chris Bryant and the celebrity lawyer Charlotte Harris. Chaired by Andrew Neil. And the motion: Leveson is a fundamental threat to the free press.
RICHARD LITTLEJOHN is up first. The Leveson inquiry, he said, was a cross between a Soviet show trial and Graham Norton show. The self-regarding liberal elite seized on an opportunity for this. Leveson was picking over the bones of a corpse: the News of the World was shut down by reader revulsion. A reminder that the press have to stand for election every day – the readers are the statutory regulators. The number of journalists in Britain arrested is now over 60. But we’re seeing a sustained campaign of intimidation, fishing expeditions from police who enter journalists’s homes, overturn their children’s bedroom. Almost as bad is the appalling Filkin report which criminalises all contact between journalists and the police. You can’t have a little bit of press regulation any more than you can be a little bit pregnant, he says.
CHRIS BRYANT (Lab, Rhondda) opens with a fattist joke: ‘I’m not Tom Watson, I’m half the man he is. Referring to the Hollywood film of the hacking scandal, Bryant says: ‘I’m worried my character is going to turn into a woman who has an affair with Tom Watson.’ Not, of course, that Watson has had an affair. He says he likes the press, he confesses that ‘I sometimes look at the Daily Mail sidebar of shame – I love the scabrous, naughty irreverent press we have in this country’ better than the press he grew up with under Franco as a kid. But ‘we regulate Andrew Neil’s programmes’ because ‘we know a fair and balanced broadcaster is good for all of us.’ (Maybe so, but The Spectator’s motto is ‘firm but unfair’.) ‘There are very strange things about me – I’m slightly gay…in fact, I’m a practising homosexual and one day I’ll get good at it.’ (Not sure where this is going). He got involved in the Leveson because a friend of his, an MP, was mugged. He reported it to a policeman and 45 minute later the News of the World were on the phone. Why? He respondes: ‘the police officer was given money by the NOTW for that information.’ He makes the (very fair) point that in evidence to the Media Committee, Rebekah Brooks admitted to paying police for information – seemingly unaware it was against the law. Things have to change. ‘I don’t think newspapers should be our gods.’
GUIDO FAWKES doesn’t think newspapers should be our gods either – he’s up next. He started off in the dead tree press – delivering it. ‘Until some Sunday Times editor quadrupled the size and broke my back…I wonder what happened to him.’ The correct relationship between politicians and the media is that between a dog and a lamppost, he says. He goes for Bryant. ‘He told me he wished to see my site closed down – he now expects me to believe he is the guardian of a free press. What about Tom Watson, the hyperbolic scourge of Murdoch?’ he claimed that Watson called up The Spectator to complain about his No2, Harry Cole. ‘Since the closure of the NOTW, not a single politician has been caught with their pants down. A lack of extramarital affairs reported is an unhealthy state of affairs.’ Cheating MPs tend to be lying ones. ‘Any hint of statutory underpinning’ gives those MPs levers that they should never have.
7.55pm MAX MOSLEY says that just 1pc of the country can afford to sue the press, and if the other 99pc cannot then we cannot say we’re operating under the rule of law. His argument is muted, almost lawyerly. ‘A newspaper doesn’t have to belong” to Leveson’s proposed setup, “it’s entirely voluntary’ but Leveson would then force the newspaper to pay costs even if it wins a case. Under the current system, an oligarch can sue the FT with a hopeless case, he loses – but the FT still has to pay a chunk of the costs. ‘The rich can bully anyone if they are prepared to spend money’ but Leveson proposes a fairer arbitration system. Leveson is not about a Rubicon of statute, it’s about access to justice at reasonable costs. The Press Complaints Commission is already in legal statute, so why the squeamishness now? ‘For the first time ever the public will have a proper system where their rights can be enforced at zero cost’ and that – he says – is what this is all about.
8.03pm JOHN WHITTINGDALE says many of the victims – the McCanns, even Max Mosley, were victims of already-illegal behaviour and managed to find redress against the press under existing laws. He agrees with Chris Bryant that a stronger version of the Press Complaints Commission is needed and even agreed with chunks of what Mosley said. So where do they disagree? Not the end, but the means. Leveson wants legislation ‘and that is what I, and the government, regard as fundamentally dangerous. It legitimises the idea that government and parliament should have a roll in what the press should and should not do.’ He quotes Shami Chakrabati saying ‘that would bring about the danger of political control through the back door.’ It’s now possible to find a solution to bring the ‘tough regulation that Leveson wants and I want’ but to do this with legislation ‘is a step too far’ and does pose a danger to the free press.
8.15pm EVAN HARRIS [standing in for Charlotte Harris, who has apparently been held up with a client]. It was ‘pleasure to hear as well as read Richard Littlejohn’ because he said things ‘that you couldn’t make up.’ (The hall quite liked this joke). The press didn’t expose Jimmy Savile, he said, in fact the supposedly over-regualated ITV that did the hard work. There was ‘mass suicide’ at the BBC and ‘rightly so’ – there was ‘nothing’ at the newspapers, not a single head rolling, after the McCann scandal and the Chris Jeffries scandals . ‘We cannot go on seeing ordinary people damaged by the press.’ And as for Guido’s idea that ‘you can only tell if a politician is lying if you know their sexual history’ is an interesting one, but should it not also apply to columnists and editors? ‘There’s a deal between the Express and the Mail not to explore the interest of the owners…. so there is a double standard there.’ And didn’t Guido engage in a vendetta against the Telegraph journalist who outed him as Paul Staines? ‘It’s his right to do so, but that doesn’t mean he should set rules for the rest of society.’ To say that parliament should have no role in regulating the press ‘is an argument against democracy.’ The Leveson report does not advocate statutory regulation or any compulsion; in fact it’s ‘about as a good a result as the press could get, yet they’re still complaining… to advance their interests against the interests of the public.’ The real threat to a free press ‘is the concentration of media power in a few hands – that’s what the press will not report and that’s what you should be aware of.’
8.27pm END OF SPEECHES – NOW OPEN TO THE FLOOR The highlights..
Guido tells Evan Harris that the Oldie actually broke the Saville story. ‘Great story, why didn’t the tabloids pick it up?’ Harris responds. One of the many questions to which Spectator subscribers know the answer – we ran a story on precisely that question last November.