Now the hackers are facing the full might of the law – we must be wary of further attempts to muzzle press freedom

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July 2, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

A £100m phone hacking trial has just finished. There are more to come as the law works its way through the claims of the many victims of phone hacking. Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman face a retrial on the charge that they paid a police officer for a royal phone book. Anyone who suggests now that the British tabloid press operates above the law simply has no evidence for that. It is important to note that the tabloid press have never actually been above the law – the law was fine – it was just not being operated – because the tabloid press were paying it not to.

Which is why the demands for state backed regulation of the press that have been coming from the pressure group Hacked Off should continue to be resisted. I am a believer above all things in free speech and a free press. I believe that the press needs to have the freedom to misbehave, to be raucous, to be unorthodox. If they go beyond the law, then they must be punished, but if not, then there should be no restrictions. George Orwell once said that “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. A free press doesn’t have to conform to everyone’s tastes, it doesn’t have to conform to the orthodoxies of the liberal cultural elite of the time, and it should be free to publish and be damned. If they break the law whilst doing so, them damned they should be.

It’s important to remember as well that there is a difference between breaking the law and breaking the rules. We wouldn’t know about MP’s expenses without the acquisition of their expense claims by the Daily Telegraph in 2009 using methods that definitely broke the rules – given they were private financial records leaked by someone working in Parliament.

Many people from Hacked Off will argue that if the press is doing nothing wrong then they have nothing to fear from full implementation of the Leveson regulations. Really? Then why was it – when Telegraph journalist was investigating the issue of then Culture Secretary Maria Miller – that Mrs Miller’s adviser Joanna Hindley told the journalist when she called that: “Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about.”

That line puts a chill through my spine every time I read it. It is NOT a “dab of statute” as Nick Clegg tried to explain the draft press regulatory system bill that was drawn up by a combination of Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and members of Hacked off, and approved under duress by David Cameron. It is a direct threat from someone who works for the government to a member of the press that they should stay out of the business of investigating the Minister if they know what’s good for them. When the Leveson Report was published, its supporters challenged the press to point to any legitimate news story that would be threatened by implementation of its recommendations. Maria Miller’s aide provided the answer.

Many of the people behind Hacked Off have genuine questions to ask about the limits of their privacy, and have raised genuine questions about what the difference is between the public interest and what the public is interested in. Many of the people behind Hacked Off would also find their lives a lot easier if the press weren’t as free as they are now. They are hiding behind the many innocent victims of phone hacking – such as Kate and Gerry McCann and Milly Dowler’s parents as if they were human shields. We have Ed Miliband, another person who would gain from a ‘better behaved’ press asking us to think about what the Dowlers and the McCanns would want – as if we live in the country where the victims should also be the judge and the jury.

We just need to be wary. Very wary.

 

 

 

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