‘There’s been huge hysteria in some branches of the press in the last two days, saying we’re going down the road of Zimbabwe, that we’re going to be another Kazakhstan – that’s nonsense.’ So said Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor of The Observer, in an interview with me last week in the aftermath of the Leveson report. He’s right, of course: feverish and emotional editorializing from so clear a vested interest as the tabloid press, particularly in light of the disgusting behaviour that presaged the inquiry, can easily be dismissed as fundamentally unserious. Yet the danger of allowing extreme examples advocated by discredited sources to cloud legitimate concerns over the independence and freedom of the press has been starkly illustrated today, in the story of Maria Miller and the Daily Telegraph that ought to serve as a cautionary tale for those inclined to take such freedoms for granted.
In keeping with its self-appointed role as Lord High Executioner when it comes to MPs’ expenses, the Telegraph contacted Ms Miller’s office for comment after the Culture Secretary was reported to the parliamentary standards watchdog for claiming £90,000 for a second home where her parents were in residence. The reporter in question did indeed receive comment, though not from her, but from her special adviser, Joanna Hindley. The latter, maybe bruised by such flagrant impertinence directed at her venerable employer, reminded the impudent hack that the editor of his paper was ‘in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary’ about the very industry in which he was employed, and was was quoted as saying: ‘Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about’. Hindley also said the reporter should discuss the issue with ‘people a little higher up your organisation’.
It doesn’t take an amoral tabloid alarmist who just wants to keep on rifling through Steve Coogan’s bins to conclude that such mafia-like threats emanating from the heart of government is not an encouraging development. In response, the paper decided ‘to disclose details of the private conversations amid widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press’, a line of argument that suddenly appears to rely less on scaremongering and to have a toe-hold, at least, in hard fact. Even advocates of statutory regulation of the press have been spooked: Dr Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP and associate director of Hacked Off, indicated this morning that he thought Miller should ‘recuse herself’ from the Leveson negotiations, and Roy Greenslade at the Guardian labelled the comments ‘a disgraceful act’ which ‘reflects badly on her office, if not herself’.
Nick Cohen of the Observer (no Tory reactionary, he) is emphatic on the matter. To Hugh Grant’s famous protestation that ‘it is not difficult to tell what is bath water and what is baby’ when it comes to regulating the press, he states in his blog on the Spectator's site that ‘this morning’s Telegraph raises a further objection […] what about the people who want to throw out babies? What about the people who want to drown them in the bathwater and hurl them out of the window to stop them screaming the house down?’
‘Despite the Telegraph’s principled stand [to publish]’, he concludes, ‘don’t kid yourself that every editor will be as principled in future, and that this is not a foretaste of what may come’. It is perhaps as well to accept this unsavoury prospect as a possibility, at the very least, in the post-Leveson media landscape.