For people who are meant to be professional communicators, journalists are hopeless at explaining themselves to the public. Everyone I know assumes that when we oppose the Leveson report we are supporting the Sun, the Mail and peeping Toms who hack phones and point lenses into other people’s bedrooms.
The fact that the Guardian and Private Eye, who exposed the hacking scandal, are opposed to state regulation has been all but forgotten. Here’s why I, they and many others worry. The New York Times reports today that FBI officers investigating leaks about Trump’s dealing with Russia had seized the phone records of one of its reporters going back years. Of course it has. That’s what states want to do when journalists put them under pressure. The Obama administration did it and the Trump administration is, if anything, more paranoid. It is a matter of record that Trump has complained bitterly about leaks and demanded that law enforcement officials seek criminal charges.
No one who has worked as journalist has the right to be shocked. Angry, perhaps. Resolute, certainly. But shocked? Without degenerating into clichés about news being what someone somewhere doesn’t want printed, everyone who has worked as a journalist knows that people don’t want uncomfortable facts about them published – and by ‘people’ I include you and me – and that powerful people will use their power to prevent publication.
The point of a liberal society is that it restricts their means to do so. The US has its first amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press, whose aid the New York Times will be invoking. We have nothing, which is why Britain has fallen to 40th out of 180 countries in the world press freedom index.
Instead of protections and accountability we have proposals from Hacked Off to give an open-ended power to politicians to determine what news organisations that have broken no criminal law can or cannot publish or face crippling court costs if they refuse. What reading of contemporary history or the distant past suggests to you that governments won’t use it?