Magazine article The Spectator

Steve Coogan - Free Speech Campaigner?

Magazine article The Spectator

Steve Coogan - Free Speech Campaigner?

Article excerpt

Why is Index on Censorship cosying up to the tribune of Hacked Off?

Credit: Nick Cohen

Listen

I have looked everywhere. I have Googled, and asked around. But I can find no evidence that Steve Coogan has ever taken the trouble to defend freedom of speech at home or abroad.

I promised myself I would never again mock 'luvvies' in politics after I saw Tim Minchin, Dave Gorman, Robin Ince and Dara Ó Briain give up their time to help Index on Censorship's campaign against Britain's repressive libel laws. Steve Coogan did not stand alongside them. I have heard Sir Ian McKellen and Sienna Miller protest at Index events in defence of the Belarus Free Theatre, which must ward off the attentions of the Lukashenko dictatorship. But I have never heard a squeak from Coogan.

He lobbies for Hacked Off, which started with a good case against abuses of press power, but degenerated into know-nothing, single-issue fanaticism long ago. Coogan's record means that a short press release caused lifelong liberals to consider resigning from Index last week. It was 'delighted to announce' that Coogan had agreed to become Index's patron. Coogan was equally delighted as he believed that 'creative and artistic freedom of expression is something to be cherished'.

This was news to me and many others, who had seen Hacked Off become like the tabloids it opposed. Listen for the familiar hectoring voice, and the routine dismissal of contrary opinions as stupid and corrupt in his assault on David Mitchell last year. His fellow comedian had said in the Observer that liberal hatred of Murdoch was not a good enough reason to tear up basic protections. Rather than argue, Coogan jeered. 'Despite your ubiquity, you are consistently well above average,' he said as he dismissed Mitchell's comedy with the condescension sneering men mistake for wit. Mitchell's argument against giving politicians unprecedented power to regulate the press, however, was so dumb he could not even patronise it. Mitchell was producing 'ill-informed and superficial dross'. He was doing the work of press barons. Mitchell's warnings were 'astonishing' and 'sloppy'. He was a 'schoolboy' miles out of his depth.

Still Mitchell, dross-churning schoolboy that he was, could count on the support of Index on Censorship. Parliament's charter on press regulation undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account, it said. 'Politicians have now stepped in as ringmaster and our democracy is tarnished as a result.' Events were to show that the politicians could not wait to start cracking the whip. When Telegraph reporters asked about her expenses, an aide for Maria Miller, the former culture secretary, warned them that she was responsible for press regulation and they had better watch what they said.

No one had the right to be surprised. Give politicians the power to influence what writers say about them and they will use it. Even schoolboys know that.

Beyond Parliament's creation of the first mechanism for political surveillance of the written word in peacetime since the 1690s, there is a more subtle assault on investigative journalism. News organisations that do not sign up to an approved regulator face exemplary damages in the courts, even if they win a libel or a privacy case. J.K. Rowling and other Hacked Off supporters have provided the funds to set up a regulator called Impress. (Geddit?) If the government recognises it, newspapers and magazines will face punitive punishments if they refuse to join, which will kill small journals and deter larger ones from tackling dangerous stories. …

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