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Sunday 24 March 2013

I'm hacked off with stars and politicians curbing press

Hugh Grant deserves a punitive tattoo for his efforts to muzzle the media in Britain, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

'I hope we are keeping a list of everyone who was in favour of press regulation", began an email from a British friend who has never been nor wanted to be a journalist. "I would like this tattooed on their foreheads – and perhaps there can be a kind of noise, like discordant trumpets, which will sound every time they make a public pronouncement about anything. For the rest of their lives."David is a kindly man from a Christian background who believes in redemption, so he added: "If they renounce their mistakes – and apologise for trying to destroy the basis of a free and decent society, and indeed of justice and science and the whole Enlightenment – then they can speak free of the trumpets. And their foreheads will be wiped clean."

I'm with him all the way, and my first candidate for the punitive tattoo will be Hugh Grant. I liked him in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but I'm so furious with him that I don't care if the tattoo keeps him off our screens. Forever!

Grant has been the front-man for Hacked Off, an organisation of victims of hacking and other press malfeasances and a few academics and lawyers with what I regard as authoritarian leanings, though they would dispute that. In that role he has become a weighty public figure who is listened to with an absurd amount of respect, not least because he is adept in reminding us of the worst cases and interviewers are too reverential to remind him that laws should not be made by victims.

There was no decent person who watched or read evidence given at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press who was not moved and angry about, for instance, the persecution of the parents of Madeleine McCann or the hacking of a missing girl's phone. But the offending newspapers paid huge damages to the McCanns, the News of the World was closed down, and scores of journalists have been arrested in dawn raids and many charged with serious offences like theft and bribery. The career of Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch's right-hand woman at News International, has been ruined and she's awaiting trial.

The police had turned a blind eye for years – not least because they knew that they had many members who routinely sold information – but once they began to do their duty it was clear there was no need for new legislation.

There was a clear need, however, for a serious beefing up of the Press Complaints Commission, easy access to a complaints procedure, prominent corrections, a new code of conduct and hefty fines, and editors were prepared to sign up to it. Some looked favourably on the Irish system of a Press Council and Press Ombudsman. They were close to agreeing on very tough self-regulation.

And then, using Hugh Grant as cover, politicians decided to seize the opportunity to muzzle the hated press which for three centuries has exposed corruption and bad behaviour in public life. In recent times, it has brought about the jailing of, for instance, Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer and Chris Huhne. In 2009, citing the public interest, the Daily Telegraph paid £110,000 for a confidential file of MPs' expenses, leading not just to many resignations, sackings, and retirements, but to the imprisonment of several politicians for false accounting.

The campaign was harsh and brought politicians probably into too much disrepute, but that's typical of how the British press has been able to keep politics and business pretty clean compared to Ireland, which has used fear of bankruptcy to keep the press at bay. Charlie Haughey and Michael Lowry would not have survived in the House of Commons.

David Cameron actually cares about press freedom and wanted voluntary and proportionate reform, as did a handful of Tories, but most MPs just wanted vengeance and control while piously insisting that they were merely trying to protect future victims. Cameron's attempted compromise of a royal charter was dished by Hacked Off, which painted him and any other dissenters from their demands for heavy state regulation as Murdoch stooges. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg led the stampede to sign up and Cameron had to go unhappily along with a confused form of state regulation of print and digital journalism that was hastily passed, almost no one understands and is attracting horrified criticism from world media and bodies like Index on Censorship that defend freedom of expression.

Editors and owners are consulting their lawyers and the prospect looms that tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mail, which loath the European Court of Human Rights, may yet be saved by it. What a great film it would all make. Hugh Grant, tattoo and all, can play himself.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards