I’ve been a big fan over the years, I’ve enjoyed your witty asides, acerbic observations, character acting and voiceovers. In fact, despite your ubiquity, you are consistently well above average. I never normally criticise fellow entertainers unless a) I respect them and b) they come out with ill-informed and superficial dross on a serious issue. I’m afraid that on this occasion you qualify.
Now I know we shouldn’t expect forensic attention to detail from your column, as it is supposed to entertain as well as inform. As someone fairly experienced in comedy myself, I understand that you can make a few generalisations, exploiting the odd prejudice here and there for comic effect, but last week your cricketing anecdote and subsequent musings weren’t up there with your most rib-tickling stuff. So I can only assume it’s, er, what you actually think.
You hobble yourself from the outset by challenging something which no one is proposing: silencing Paul Dacre. No one is saying that, not Leveson, not Hacked Off, not the Royal Charter.
“Press freedom is essential for us,” you say. Wow, you’re really going out on a limb! No one disagrees: it’s like saying you’re anti-cancer. You seem to have bought into the reductive polarisation of a debate that most of the press frame in their own interests.
Leveson himself said that though parts of the press had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”, this should not mean press freedom should be “jeopardised or that the press should be delivered into the arms of the state”. To suggest it, he added, was to “grossly misrepresent” what had been happening over the 16 months of the inquiry.
Your description of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre as “have-a-go heroes… charged with protecting Britain’s ancient principle of freedom of speech” is laughable. They are protecting their freedom to profiteer by any means necessary.
Hacked Off, by contrast, isn’t trying to please shareholders: no one is paying me to write this, David, we just don’t like bullies. If Murdoch and Dacre on their white chargers with you in the background (probably a pikeman) were really about freedom of speech they would have covered the hacking scandal, which had celebrity, royals, politicians, criminals, conspiracy, murder victims – everything their papers love to cover. If they believed in freedom of speech they would have covered the inquiry into their own industry with a soupçon of balance instead of leading the great former Sunday Times editor, Sir Harry Evans, to say last week that “the exaggerations of some papers comparing Britain to Zimbabwe are so ridiculous, so self-interested as to destroy the very freedom of speech they claim to protect”. Guess how many papers reported this? None.
You astonishingly describe the search for effective accountability by our democratically elected representatives and a judge-led inquiry (amazing that your long piece fails to mention Leveson once) as a “crackpot quest”. The “quest” is not state regulation but yet another chance for self-regulation with an independent inspection body to make sure it is not the Press Complaints Commission all over again, which I’m sure you will agree, David, was rubbish.
You need a law to set it up, just like with the Judicial Appointments Commission which appoints judges and is totally independent. To satisfy the press’s demand that there should not be a new press law, the prime minister imposed a Royal Charter. But this one can only be changed via a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament. This prevents future governments watering things down to suck up to Dacre, Murdoch and Co. Sounds good to me.
You moan about seven privy councillors rejecting the press’s own charter – which was the son of the PCC, business as usual. The government, supported by the opposition, along with most of the country (as demonstrated by successive polls) rejected it. Critical analysis of their dodgy proposal was never rebutted by any of their massed ranks of lawyers or lobbyists.
You see, when you get into the nitty-gritty of what they won’t agree to, it all falls apart. Oh, and four of those privy councillors were Tories. Stephen Fry described their disposition best when he tweeted after the PM’s response to Leveson: “It would seem David Cameron’s address is no longer Number 10 Downing Street: it’s now Flat 2, Rupert Murdoch’s arse.”
Let me give you an example of what the rubbish part of the press don’t like about the very modest Royal Charter: equal prominence of apologies. Let’s just suppose you read a headline, something really awful about you like, “David Mitchell likes to have sex with animals… small ones… a lot.” (I know it’s a bit annoying but multiply your irritation by a thousand and you may get a taste of what it was like to be Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies, who was accused – without a shred of evidence – of murdering Joanna Yeates.) Now let’s say that you can demonstrate quite swiftly that the headline is untrue through personal testimonies (I would vouch for you) and CCTV footage. How would you feel if, after the paper did a mea culpa, they printed the correction/apology in a one-inch column on page 16? Happy? Or really, really happy? OK, now imagine you’ve been accused of pickpocketing the dead on a football field after a disaster. Just to sell more newspapers. Not so funny now is it?
There was a litany of abusive, exploitative behaviour heard by Leveson, of innocent people being monstered, none of which could remotely be described as being in the public interest. This goes way beyond the hacking scandal which took years to be uncovered, because even though it was widespread and known to be illegal, it was tolerated. Ditto the Motorman data-theft blagging scandal, where the personal details – including bank accounts– of thousands of people were illegally obtained and sold to the press.
You say “the failure of the police shouldn’t have any bearing on the regulation of what the press is permitted to print”. Regulation is not about what the press is permitted to print. It is proper enforcement of the industry’s own code of practice. As Leveson’s report said: “The board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time.” Have you not read it? Or are you just repeating something someone else has said?
You fail to point to a single line in the whole of Leveson or of the charter that would prevent investigative or public interest journalism. Or a single witness at Leveson arguing that it should. Or a single politician wanting to do so. Because there is none.
David, if your article were a schoolboy’s essay, it would score highly for style. But it would be covered in red ink with frequent use of the word “sloppy”, finishing with: “See me.”
David Mitchell responds