Saturday 20 December 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Rare demonstration of political principle

David Cameron could have accepted Leveson and run for cover, but instead he took a stand

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 02/12/2012 | 05:00

THE left wing commentariat can be shockingly unimaginative. When David Cameron came out strongly last week against political regulation of the press in the wake of the Leveson report into phone hacking, the immediate response of many was to scoff that he was only doing so because he was afraid of the media, or wanted the support of billionaire proprietors at the next election.

The idea that the British prime minister might have done so because he actually believed that political interference in a free press was dangerous and misguided never occurred to them; but actually what came through from Cameron's words last week was a stirring sense of absolute principle and conviction.

These were not the words of a man who has the press genuflecting at his feet, but a man who is the target of systematic abuse from the very press whose rights he was defending; a man who is pilloried regularly even in solid Tory newspapers like the Telegraph and the Mail. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to go down the populist route of pushing through an invasive system of press control. The public has been clamouring for it, outraged at the News of The World tapping the phones of murder victims and their families. The luvvies were in high dudgeon, and if there's one thing we have learned from the Jimmy Savile scandal, it's that celebrities are not to be trifled with, they're the new world superpower. Even the newspaper industry has joined in the cycle of hysteria, beating itself up mercilessly for its real and imagined sins.

Without any hope of being provided with intellectual covering fire for making a stand, David Cameron still resisted the headlong rush to bring journalism under the wing of the nanny state. Parliament, he said, hasn't asserted its control over the press since 1695, and he wasn't about to start now. Rather than applauding this classic liberal defence of free speech, the critics sought to diminish and rubbish what he said.

Sometimes it's only when you hear a courageous demonstration of principle over political opportunism that you realise how rare it is. It's hard to imagine Enda Kenny giving such a speech. In fact, we don't have to imagine what he'd do in similar circumstances. We already know. The Moriarty report cost even more than Lord Leveson's inquiry. As soon as it was published, the Taoiseach declared that he accepted it "in its entirety" – then did nothing about it. He even had the cheek to go to the Magill summer school and promise harsh consequences for TDs involved in corruption, whilst still doing nothing. David Cameron could have done that too. Accepted Leveson, then run from action, but he didn't. He took a stand, one that is unpopular amongst many on his own side, and even the press wouldn't give him credit for standing by principles that they too ought to hold dear.

The reason newspapers don't defend themselves vigorously like this is because there has been a collective loss of confidence. This is an industry in trouble, and, unlike the banks, we don't get bailouts. If newspapers fold, no one rides to the rescue, and there's no knowing what damage that does to our democracy and culture until it's too late. The only thing we can hope for is moral support, especially in the face of the threat from an internet that does not have to take the same legal and moral responsibility for its content. The public appetite for a robust press to compete with that challenge has to be encouraged, not undermined, and that can only start when powerful people have the guts to resist bandwagons and declare that, for all its faults, a free press does more good than harm.

Not least because we know what happens to industries that come under the control of central government . They die. Meanwhile, the apparatus put into place to run them becomes bloated and corrupt and self-serving, and you have just another arrogant institution, amassing power, serving itself, whilst the public pays the bill. You only have to look at the people Lord Leveson envisaged running such a statutory body – lawyers and journalism professors foremost among them. Snobs, in other words, who have always been hostile to the more muscular traditions of print journalism, shuddering with distaste at the public's taste.

These are the puritans and bluestockings who decided, when Niamh Horan was attacked by a property developer in an Algarve bar, that she was the one who was in the wrong. I wouldn't give them power over a jumble sale, never mind the fourth estate.

David Cameron did us all a service last week by stepping back from the noise and heat of the hysteria over phone hacking and taking the long view. The question for the Left is why they're not fighting on the same side. They used to be defiantly for free speech, just as they were for international intervention against tyranny, and they've slowly withdrawn from both struggles as they retreated into simpering moral relativism. Yes, phone hacking was a shameful scandal, but it's already against the law. Where's the logic in throwing away centuries of press freedom just to give Rupert Murdoch a bloody nose, when, if there's one thing that can be said without fear of contradiction, it is that, whatever regime is put in place, Rupert Murdoch is going to do just fine? Sometimes the only way to be on the side of the angels is to be on the side of the devils too.

Sunday Independent

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