By Kenneth Roy
One of the prime smoothychops of the UK cabinet, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, gave an assurance in a weekend interview that he ‘thinks [my italics] it is completely agreed that the state should not control the content of newspapers’. Boy, isn’t that big of him?
I didn’t see the interview in question. I have been unable to watch Andrew Marr since it was revealed that the Queen’s biographer had taken out a superinjunction to prevent details about his private life being splashed all over the papers. But I am told by someone who did see it that Hunt’s use of the word ‘thinks’ should not be taken too seriously, that it may have been a slip of the tongue.
I’m not sure. Raising a speculative possibility, then knocking it down, is a well-known ploy. It plants a seed. No need to do much more than water it a couple of times a week until it grows into an unexpectedly nasty fungus. Next time it makes a public appearance, possibly years later, there it is on Sir Andrew Marr’s Sunday programme, a fully pledged idea whose time has come.
So Mr Hunt needs watching; and watching now. The same is true of Lord Leveson, Shami Chakrabarti and the rest of the worthies on his panel.
In the same interview, Mr Hunt looked forward to ‘a tougher regulatory system’ for the press. He said it was what ‘the public’ – whoever they are – want. He also said that ‘the public’ want the press to behave ‘properly’. Is that really what the people want? Who knows? It is certainly what people like Jeremy Hunt want, since it would suit them very well.
I do wonder about that word ‘properly’ and what Mr Hunt meant by it. Would he regard it as ‘proper’ for the press to report the inconvenient fact that, for 18 months, a leading British politician allowed his agent to live in his taxpayer-funded house as a lodger, while the politician continued to claim costs totalling almost £10,000 to which he was not entitled? There was no criminal wrongdoing, but it was a breach of the rules and the money had to be repaid. The politician in question was Jeremy Hunt.
Had a more proper press, respectful of the privacy of public figures, not reported this unfortunate misunderstanding, and many others, in its exposure of the MPs’ expenses racket, it is conceivable that we would still be none the wiser about Mr Hunt’s lodger. It is also conceivable that this emasculated press will be the press of the future.
Eight months later, despite many arrests, not a single charge has been brought. We don’t need a tougher regulatory system; the criminal law will do. Yet the smell of prison for the guilty seems a rather distant prospect.
The shape of the ‘tougher regulatory system’ is already emerging from the Leveson inquiry. Journalists are likely to join accountants and lawyers among the professionally regulated professions, forced to register, obliged to act responsibly. Professional lapses will be punished by reprimand, suspension or striking off. This crackpot idea hasn’t come from any of Leveson’s celeb witnesses; it is the inspiration of an editor whose advice will be happily embraced. The Easter eggs are only just in the shops, but already the turkeys of our trade are voting for an early Christmas.
Here’s a frank confession. I’m not comfortable with the idea of behaving properly, even if this is what ‘the public’ expect of me. I’m not ashamed, for example, of having recorded a conversation with the then manager of Rangers Football Club without telling him what I was up to. The recruitment policies of the club, and the equivocations of its management, were a public scandal at the time, and they needed to be exposed somehow. For such an offence, under the ‘tougher regulatory system’ eagerly anticipated by Mr Hunt, I would be hauled before some board of press commissioners.
There wouldn’t be much hope, either, for Jack McLean, whose clumsy expression of an opinion about the Diane Watson case led to accusations at the Leveson inquiry that he had caused the suicide of the murdered girl’s brother – accusations casually repeated in the Independent on Sunday last weekend. Mr McLean was not offered an opportunity to defend himself or a right of reply. Does Miss Chakrabarti, the renowned champion of civil liberties, not consider this an infringement of his human rights? To borrow from Mr Hunt, was the treatment of Mr McLean ‘proper’?
Here is a second frank confession. I can think of few journalists who would not fall foul of any test of what is considered ‘proper’ by Jeremy Hunt and his ilk; and who would not be rather proud of failing the test. Of course a line has to be drawn somewhere. All this began last summer with seedy tales of telephone hacking of the dead and vulnerable, dodgy coppers and brown paper bags stuffed with tenners. Eight months later, despite many arrests, not a single charge has been brought. We don’t need a tougher regulatory system; the criminal law will do. Yet the smell of prison for the guilty seems a rather distant prospect.
Meanwhile, the rest of journalism – the decent inquiring bit; most of it – is being comprehensively stuffed. By Christmas, it will be ready to be served at the table of Jeremy Hunt. Maybe the lodger will come too.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review