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Sunday 29 July 2012

A free press is essential and must not be nobbled by the judges

There is a danger the UK's Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking may go too far, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

I was young when I said to my father, an historian, that if I ever got the chance, I would expose Charlie Haughey for the criminal he was. I've never forgotten his look of sheer terror. The man I considered -- and still consider -- to have been a moral giant in his service of truth, said: "No, my darling. Don't even think of it. He'd destroy you. And any newspaper you wrote it in."

So I went back to London and looked with new appreciation at a free press. It wasn't wholly free, of course. Nor should it be. It's unfair, for instance, that in the US, there is almost no recourse for those subjected to even the vilest calumnies. Their press is too free and -- as we have learned painfully over the past few decades -- unaccountable institutions become corrupted. But in Ireland, the press was bullied, threatened, outspent and stifled by dodgy clergy, politicians, businessmen and other wrong-doers. France, too, was a political cesspit because of draconian privacy laws.

What was healthy in Britain over the centuries was a permanent tussle between powerful institutions, like church, parliament and monarchy, all of them gleefully mocked and exposed by cartoonists and newspapers.

In recent years, the British press almost did for the monarchy with its salacious coverage of royal misfortunes; it destroyed the reputation of politicians with its merciless (and often hypocritical) coverage of the expenses scandal; the City was given no quarter, even when it deserved some; and anyone with the faintest claim to celebrity had their lives spied upon and their reputations routinely trashed. In sum, the press had become too arrogant and powerful.

Simultaneously, though, and hardly noticed outside the newspaper and publishing industries, began the mission creep that followed on the incorporation into English law of the European Convention on Human Rights, which for the first time brought respect for a private life into English law. The results of some libel actions and rulings so strengthened privacy laws that London became a centre for libel tourism.

I don't believe an ethical press should report that a footballer has an affair with some other footballer's WAG, unless he is -- like our own dear Charlie Haughey -- as publicly uxorious as he was privately flagrant. Some of the super-injunctions suppressing press reports were morally justified: some, like that of well-known 'goody-goody' Ryan Giggs, were not.

But much libel tourism was a disgrace, notably the 2005 case of Saudi billionaire and Irish citizen Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz (relax, lawyers, he's dead), who sued New York-based academic Rachel Ehrenfeld over allegations in her Funding Evil that he financed terrorism.

Although not published in the UK, copies bought off the internet were enough justification and he won his case. An unintended consequence is that the good ole US of A has passed the formally titled 'Securing and Protecting our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act (Speech Act)', which bans federal courts from enforcing foreign libel judgments that contravene the First Amendment that protects free speech and a free Press.

Because of tabloid excesses -- particularly allegations about the hacking of texts belonging to murdered Millie Dowler -- and desperate to kick yet another troublesome can down the road, last year David Cameron asked Lord Leveson, a senior judge, to chair an inquiry into the Press. We've had a parade of (often justifiably angry) well-known victims of intrusion, as well as embarrassed journalists, and now such high-profile hacks as the prime minister's friend, Rebekah Brooks, and his former communications director, Andy Coulson, are before the courts.

Oh, ye poor Irish taxpayers, who have seen tribunals scoff money like an American hot-dog eating contest, marvel and admire that Leveson had a small team, he's packed up after eight months and gone off to write his report and those called to attend had no lawyers to speak for them. Why? Because after spending £200m (€255m) on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which took 12 years, no British government will again have an open-ended, unbudgeted inquiry.

Nay, no matter how often Enda demands a public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane, they will be unmoved, not least because they know Enda won't be setting up any tribunals either any time soon.

Still, Secretary of State for Education and ex-journalist Michael Gove, was right to speak publicly about the inquiry producing "a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression".

After all, why do we assume that the noble lord's recommendations for keeping the Press pure will not stifle free comment?

Lawyers are taking over our lives and, indeed, the whole world. Who can control them? Here's a question for Judge Leveson. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen, your honour? Could it be time for politicians to rein in our learned friends?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards