Magazine article The Spectator

Why Won't Newspapers Stand Together for Free Speech?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Won't Newspapers Stand Together for Free Speech?

Article excerpt

Civil war within the British press threatens a free society


With the possible, although far from certain, exception of the men and women who hire me, it is fair to say that Britain's editors have a death wish. They suppress their own freedom. They hold out their wrists and beg the state to handcuff them. They are so lost in ideological frenzy that they cannot see that free journalism is the first casualty of their culture wars.

The Daily Mail acclaimed David Cameron's threat to repeal the Human Rights Act and pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights as 'triumphant'. Within days, we learned how the 'triumphant' state treats the Mail on Sunday when it thinks no one is looking. Without a warrant from a judge, Kent police officers trawled records of thousands of calls to its news desk. In other words, they hacked its phones. The police hate the comparison, but it still holds. Just as celebrities could accuse tabloid journalists of threatening their right to privacy under the Human Rights Act, so journalists can now accuse the police of threatening their right to free expression, which the judges in Strasbourg have ruled includes protection for a journalist's sources.

The police targeted the Mail on Sunday because it was on the fringes of the Chris Huhne affair. You will remember that a roadside camera caught him speeding. Huhne persuaded his wife, Vicky Pryce, to pretend she was driving so that he could escape a ban, thus involving them in a (rather small) conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Huhne would have got away with it, had he not enraged his wife with the surest method known to man: running off with another woman. But Pryce did not come out and tell the truth. Instead, her friend Constance Briscoe -- a judge, no less -- briefed the Mail on Sunday . I have my notes of a conversation I had with an excited Huhne just before his trial began. 'Briscoe [has been] dealing with a MoS news executive called David Dillon,' he said. She was 'feeding the Mail information from the police investigation', throwing the whole case against him in doubt. Huhne thought he could escape justice and save his career by proving that he was the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy, led by Tory newspapers that were out to destroy him.

Unfortunately for him, nothing altered the fact that he was guilty as charged. As he talked, a question niggled at the back of my mind: how the hell did Huhne know about the Mail on Sunday 's sources?

Now we know. First the prosecution demanded that the Mail on Sunday reveal Briscoe's dealings with the paper. This attack on journalists' sources at least had the merit of being authorised by an independent judge. In the confiscated emails, Briscoe mentioned she had a 'police source'. Kent police then used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to seize all the records from David Dillon's phone on the Mail on Sunday news desk, without the approval of a judge. All for nothing: Huhne's allegations of a conspiracy were baseless. And all for the most trivial of reasons: the police were not using exceptional powers to investigate an exceptional crime, but a politician's lies about a minor driving offence, which caused no injury to people or property.

The casualness of the disregard for legal standards -- Eric Metcalf, a barrister specialising in freedom of speech, tells me he has no doubt that police breached Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the English Common Law too -- shows that the possibilities for the abuse of power are limitless. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.