….but press censorship would be worse
Whisper it quietly — I’m almost ashamed to admit it — but recently I’ve actually found myself agreeing with the Great Panjandrum himself, Lord (Chris) Patten. What a man. Former MP, Party Chairman, Governor of Hong Kong, European Commissioner, Chairman of various government commissions and quangoes, Chancellor of various universities including Oxford, and Chairman of the BBC Trust. OK, he’s a europhile, a climate alarmist, and in Tory terms a dangerous lefty, but still, surely, a National Treasure?
Needless to say that while standing back in amazement and admiring his meteoric career (losing his Westminster seat seems to have done him little damage), I have almost never managed to agree with him about anything very much — and least of all on Europe and climate. But now, to my embarrassment, I find he’s said something I can actually agree with. He is worried that knee-jerk reactions to the Hackgate scandal threaten statutory regulation of the media, whence it is but a small step to censorship. Just think. Some of our EU partners have already made Holocaust denial a criminal offence (when it should simply be derided as lunacy). Just think of all the other opinions that politicians might decide to ban in the public interest.
Frankly, I am a little surprised that the News of the World/Murdoch scandal retains its high place in the ratings. It is getting to be rather old news, and it’s competing with massive economic issues in the UK and the melt-down of the euro (and, apparently of democratic principles) on the continent. Maybe it’s just a case of media folk spending too much time navel-gazing. I suppose that the famous custard pie incident in the Commons — and the fierce defence of her man by Murdoch’s elegant ex-model Chinese wife — may have given the story legs.
I do not for a moment belittle or justify the behaviour of NotW, by the way. Surely everyone is appalled by the crass insensitivity of the hacking in the Milly Dowler case (though some may wonder whether various celebrities and Hollywood figures really needed large compensation payouts). It was downright criminal — indeed it was literally criminal, and the delays in bringing the culprits to justice seems to be down to the dilatory approach by The Met, perhaps influenced by the bungs allegedly offered to officers. It’s worth noting, though, that the Murdoch Empire stands accused of criminal offences here — and there are already laws against what they appear to have done. We just have to enforce them.
I have some sympathy with Tom Watson MP, who referred to James Murdoch as the head of a Mafia Enterprise. Mr. Murdoch responded in a hurt and injured way. But the fact is they are alleged to have undertaken large-scale phone hacking; to have run surveillance on lawyers and witnesses; and made corrupt payments to police officers. Sounds not unlike the Mafia to me.
Of course there is a great constellation of people who would like to see the press muzzled, from football players who’d like to keep their nocturnal adventures secret, through to European apparatchiks who’d like to ban criticism of the European project, to national politicians seeking to bury bad news. We must not let them. I understand that Lord Patten has an interest — he doesn’t want the BBC muzzled — but then nor should we. I yield to no one in my criticism of BBC bias, but I’d rather not see that bias directly imposed from Whitehall.
With all its faults, a free press remains a fundamental bastion of a free society. We need it. We tamper with it at our peril. Better to live with it, warts and all.