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After Leveson: The UK gets an Orwellian Ministry of Truth for real

Cause, an untrue news report. Guardian, though, not NotW

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We owe our new Ministry of Truth to a newspaper report which said terrible and untrue things about people, based on police sources the journalists should not have had any access to. This report was in the Guardian, not the NoTW

There's just one problem: there was no evidence to suggest that any journalists at any paper had done any such thing. The Operation Weeting police report said, much later:

There is no evidence at present to support a suggestion that any journalist attempted to hack into Milly's phone prior to 26th March 2002.

The "false hope" moment when Sally Dowler believed that messages had been deleted on Milly's phone was on 24 March. The police, having reviewed the evidence, are not even sure that any deletions ever took place.

So the NotW was destroyed - with hundreds of people who had done nothing wrong thrown out of work - and the entire British press is now to be subjected to direct state control (and an ongoing police witchhunt which rumbles on unstoppably, with no end to the arrests and prosecutions in sight - as the Guardian noted, even its sister paper the Observer has been named in blagging enquiries) ... all because of a newspaper story that wasn't true, supposedly based on police information and sources that the journalists who wrote it should not have had access to.

That really is ironic.

None of this is to suggest that the Dowler family didn't suffer at the NotW's hands or that laws were not broken routinely by the press back in the blagging era - but that had already been well known for years, and no Leveson inquiry resulted. The real story was the long-running failure to act by the police and prosecutors, and the fact that their political masters seemed quite happy about this.

It's also worth noting here that it's typically impossible to do crusading public-interest investigative journalism without breaking laws - that's why the public interest defence exists. That's why journalists typically refer to documents they may have "seen", rather than ones it would be illegal or actionable for them to possess, and why they often don't name their sources - the source would often be subject to criminal prosecution, civil lawsuit, sacking or all of the above if named. The journalist has, by revealing the source's information, very probably violated one or more laws; but this may well have been justifiable.

So inaction by the police in cases where journalists are thought to have broken laws or connived at law-breaking by others isn't always wrong. If a prosecution would evidently fail in court due to a public interest defence, in general no prosecution should occur and no arrests or even seizures should be made.

Where there is no public interest, the authorities should act. Simple - why do we need a Ministry of Truth for this?

In any case, the revelation that Milly Dowler's voicemails were not, in fact, deleted by journalists makes the use of the Dowlers as figureheads by the celebrities and millionaires of Hacked Off look even more cynical. If you put genuine victims on the front of your tank, people may mistake it for an ambulance and speed it through.

A Whingers' Charter

The history is relevant here because the regulation reflects it, and encodes it. Leveson makes no attempt to weigh the role of the press in exposing malpractice and annoying the wealthy. There’s no attempt at examining official enquiries from Motorman on, to see what worked and what didn’t. It would put the police and the politicians and their relationships in the spotlight, where they belong.

But Leveson was all about payback, and Hacked Off’s charter reflects Hacked Off’s specific prejudices. (MPs are delighted to help, naturally enough.)

So the Charter is vague on fundamental definitions – such as what is news, and who is a publisher – yet produces an incredibly complex and specific grievance procedure. State funding is available to anyone with a whinge, or a chip on their shoulder. As our own Chris Williams has already pointed out here, any publisher must now think twice before doing anything that might annoy a public-relations operative, such as calling DCMS the "Ministry of Fun" or the intelligence services "spooks" (both of these have genuinely elicited complaints from government PR staff in recent memory).

The last time I wrote a story which upset a PR, she rang us up.

“Can you take it down please?” she asked, repeatedly.

“No, it’s based on multiple confidential sources, but we’ll add your view to the story that you dispute it,” we said.

In future, that PR might well drag us into the mire of an unaccountable government grievance process. It will cost her nothing to do so, and will offer an excellent chance of getting the annoying report or headline erased or altered to her requirements - and perhaps of extracting a punishing fine from The Register's none-too-capacious coffers.

The "Ministry of Truth" is not an exaggeration or a bogeyman any more, then. It's a precise description of the new state media-regulator's function. The quango would not only fund my PR’s complaint, but also decide what is the truth, and impose fines if it thought that was required – all outside the judicial system. (The mind-boggling complexity of the quango doesn’t make it "judicial".) Dare to step outside the quango and the publisher faces crippling fines – up to £1m.

This is truly a Whinger’s Charter, designed for the intolerant, the special interest and the plain barmy. It doesn’t usher in Big Brother overnight, probably, but simply nitpicks it to death. The newspaper industry has been spectacularly inept at reminding people what it does, and why it doesn’t need any more punitive regulation.

“The cheering across town this week is from the rich, the celebrated and the powerful, with parliamentarians in the van,” notes one former editor. The powerful need to be held to account as much as ever, but Parliament is to give them even more power to intimidate and silence their critics.

So it’s a very British coup – British, in the sense of stealthy and bureaucratic rather than noisy and free-wheeling. The Whingers' Charter, designed by bullying millionaires and tinfoil-hatted Murdoch conspiracy theorists, looks unworkable at best, sinister at worst.

But strangely, I think there may be a silver lining. I expect people will begin to value English and Scottish Common Law. Americans learn the constitution, and ideas such as the separation of powers, from a very early age. Here it isn't taught, or is rapidly forgotten. We may even see a revival for that most discredited word "freedom", the unwritten basis for our common law. We prefer to allow people to be wallies, and take the consequences, rather than define every instance of wallydom - as other countries do. So the British approach to law isn’t romantic, it’s practical.

It’s a shame it takes an inept and illiberal intervention to demonstrate it. Until this finally collapses, though, it'll probably be the best media organisations which will pay the highest cost. ®

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