Rarely can a new government minister made a stupider statement just days after being appointed. Culture Secretary since Monday, Matt Hancock tweeted on Wednesday night:
‘House of Lords have just voted to restrict press freedoms. This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local press. We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons.’
In every respect here he has backed the wrong horse. In every respect he has got this wrong. It is a spectacular misreading of the public mood and it amounts to an open commitment to place the interests of friendly press barons before those of ordinary people. Let’s look at the component parts of the tweet:
‘House of Lords have just voted to restrict press freedoms.’
This is just dumb. The House of Lords voted to press the government (a) to begin the long-delayed second phase of the Leveson Inquiry, and (b) to give effect, in modified form, to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which was actually passed into law by all parties in Parliament nearly five years ago. Neither would restrict press freedoms. The former offers an opportunity to clear the stink of corruption that hangs over the national press and undermines trust in journalism while the latter actually delivers new protections to journalists.
‘The vote will undermine high quality journalism . . .’
No it won’t. It will protect high quality journalism. But it will also increase the chance that news publishers that breach their own industry’s agreed code of practice will be made accountable. In other words, papers that promise to be accurate and then tell lies will be called out. Will that undermine high quality journalism? No, it will support it.
‘. . . fail to resolve challenges the media face . . . ‘
Oh please. The two biggest challenges the news media face are how to make money from honest reporting and what to do about dishonest reporting. The votes in the Lords have no impact upon the former, but they do address the latter, and in a positive and constructive way in line with the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry (Part 1) and with the measures agreed by all parties in Parliament (including Mr Hancock’s) in 2013.
‘. . . and is a hammer blow to the local press.’
This is ignorant nonsense. If the local press have anything to lose from Leveson 2’s investigation of press corruption it will surprise everybody. But they have everything to gain by full and early commencement of Section 40, which has the potential to protect their reporters from bullying by rich litigants while removing all risk of court costs in libel and privacy cases. Yes, in the past they complained about some aspects of Section 40 – so they were given a special exemption.
‘We support a free press. . . ‘
Mr Hancock does not mean by this that he supports independent journalism. What he means, as the above makes clear, is that he supports the freedom of the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express to trash your rights and mine and to tell lies on their front pages whenever it suits them.
Any rational observer of British life will know he has made a stupid choice. The reputations of these companies are in tatters. Trust in their product is appallingly low. Their sham regulator, IPSO, is a laughing stock. Their hectoring and their bigotry isolate them more every day.
By backing the Sun and the Mail, Mr Hancock is embracing two outfits that are losing print sales at the astonishing rate of at least 400 copies every day. He is a rat jumping on a sinking ship.
UPDATE 11 January am:
Further to that ‘hammer blow to the local press’: this notion that local papers are threatened in some way by Section 40 has been picked up and repeated, including by the Guardian, which should know better. It is demonstrably false.
The Royal Charter contains (see Schedule 2, Paragraph 7c) an explicit exemption or opt-out for any local or regional news publisher if the arbitration provisions of Section 40 would be financially harmful to it. Frankly it is very hard to see how they could be financially harmful, but the local and regional press made a case during the cross-party negotiations in early 2013 and so a special concession was made. Matt Hancock does not seem to have been briefed about it and the Guardian does not seem to know about it, but it’s a fact.