Ian Hislop and his Private Eye colleague Francis Wheen have resigned as patrons of Index on Censorship in protest at the appointment of Steve Coogan, apparently on the grounds that Coogan’s association with Hacked Off makes him an enemy of free expression.
If that is what they believe they have the whole business the wrong way around. Hacked Off champions free expression and Steve Coogan has been a committed activist in that cause. It is our adversaries – not Hislop and Wheen, but the people who run the big newspaper companies – who are enemies of freedom.
Look at their record and then look at ours.
The big newspaper groups
1. They routinely exploit their power to cover up their shocking record of wrongdoing, to distort and misrepresent evidence and argument and to smear and denigrate anybody who disagrees with them. They also deny space on their pages to anyone who questions their views and conduct. Since they control more than 90 per cent of daily newspaper circulation, this is an effective gag on free expression.
2. They routinely exploit their power over politicians to protect their commercial interests, often to the disadvantage of the public. There is abundant evidence of this in the Leveson Report, but a good example is their success in ensuring that the penalties for data theft are laughably low. This enabled them to help themselves to the personal data of many thousands of people.
3. They invite political meddling in press regulation. For almost all of its existence the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has been chaired by active politicians. Its current chair is a former Conservative Cabinet minister while the chair of PressBoF, the shadowy outfit that pulls the strings on behalf of proprietors, is a Conservative peer and former party media chief. They insist that this political contamination must continue into the future.
4. They ensure that the PCC cannot make clear to the public the extent of press wrongdoing it deals with, and who is chiefly responsible.
5. They campaign for the repeal of the Human Rights Act, the single most important legal bastion of free expression in this country. Most papers miss no opportunity to attack, mock and misrepresent the Act – even though they sometimes quietly invoke it themselves in their own legal interests.
6. When the government wanted to gag or punish the Guardian for its reporting of the Snowden affair, leading papers such as the Mail, Telegraph and Times did not stand up for free expression; they egged the government on.
7. They collude to protect each other’s reputations. Under a well-known proprietors’ pact, no paper in the cartel publishes critical material about those who own and run rival papers.
The record of Hacked Off
1. We support the Royal Charter based on the Leveson recommendations, which includes unprecedented safeguards for the press against political meddling. No government can alter the Charter on its own authority and no politicians can direct or serve in the Charter body or in the self-regulators that it audits. The big press companies oppose this.
2. We support the Charter’s requirement that no press self-regulator ‘should have the power to prevent the publication of any material, by anyone at any time’. The big press companies oppose this.
3. We support Leveson’s proposal for a British version of the US First Amendment, which safeguards press freedom. The big newspaper companies oppose this.
4. We support the Leveson recommendation to give investigative journalists unprecedented protection against ‘chilling’ – intimidation by wealthy people and institutions who use the threat of costly legal action, in the style favoured for example by Robert Maxwell. This protection can be delivered by requiring litigants to enter low-cost arbitration or face meeting both parties‘ legal costs in the High Court, win or lose. The big newspaper companies oppose this.
5. After the publication of the Leveson Report we called for politicians to show maximum transparency in their response, so the public could know that nothing underhand was going on. The big newspaper companies, by contrast, exploited all their traditional secret leverage over politicians.
6. In the interests of free expression Hacked Off seeks better protection for media plurality in Britain, so that large corporations are not able to dominate the means by which citizens are informed about news.
7. Hacked Off favours extending public interest defences for so that journalists accused of breaking certain laws – for example the Bribery Act – are able to make a case to juries that their actions were justified because they prevented something worse.
8. Hacked Off is committed to freedom of expression and actively seeks to enhance it in the UK. Everyone involved in the campaign believes we must have diverse news media able and willing to challenge powerful interests of all kinds.
As the European Convention on Human Rights makes clear, human rights do not begin and end with the right to free expression, precious as that is. We are entitled, for example, to freedom from discrimination, from degrading treatment and from arbitrary interference with our privacy and correspondence. We also have the right of redress when such rights are breached.
Hacked Off supports all those rights, as it supports the Human Rights Act. The big newspaper companies continually violate those rights, and in resisting the modest proposals of the Leveson Report they also seek to deny citizens their right of redress. The victims are thousands of ordinary people.
Finally, have a look at this list of names of people who make their living in the world of free expression – authors, playwrights, human rights lawyers, academics, comedians, actors, theatre and film directors and journalists. One of them is Steve Coogan. Like Hacked Off, they all back the Leveson Royal Charter.