Category Archives: freedom of speech

24 Jan

The privileged elite and the freedom of the press

I’m not starry-eyed about the British newspapers. How could I be when I’ve read them and written for them all my working life? If ever I harboured any illusions, these were quickly dispelled back in the late 1980s when I was lucky enough to land myself a proper job in Fleet Street. Sir David English gave me a freelance contract on the Daily Mail to write op-ed pieces, travel articles and book reviews. And it really was Fleet Street in those days: the Daily Mail building was two minutes’ walk from St Bride’s, the wedding cake church so named after its unusual tower. I had a grand old time. I joined Scribes’ journalists’ drinking club and spent hours in The Cheshire Cheese,once a favourite watering-hole of Dr Johnson,  where I talked Old Leeds with Keith Waterhouse and cricket with Ian Wooldridge. I interviewed Daniel Barenboim in Munich and John Arlott in Alderney and I had dinner with Anthony Burgess and his wife in the West End. The first feature I was asked to write was about the Lockerbie disaster.

I learned all – well, at least some – of the tricks of the trade. I saw the glamour and the dark side. There was that scintillated feeling when you got the centre pages spread – though I managed that only once in three years. I saw corners cut and I saw dirty tricks, brilliant inventiveness and quite astonishing stupidity and ignorance. For example, I had to work with a particular editor who was so conscious of her status that, on the occasions she took me out to lunch, she would book a limo to take us a hundred yards round the corner. And here’s what I mean by ignorance. It was my job to suggest topics for stories and one day in 1990, the fiftieth anniversary of Dunkirk, I phoned another editor and said, “I’d like to go to the beaches at Dunkirk and interview British and German veterans of the battle.” The editor replied: “Great idea Pete…” (I hate being called Pete) “…Just refresh my memory – what was Dunkirk?”

Old hacks like me have no illusions when it comes to the world of newspapers. The papers are capable of all manner of skulduggery from phone-tapping to making up stories. But for all its faults – and they are myriad – we need the press. If it hadn’t been for the newspapers’ nagging perseverance, we would have never got the truth about the first Iraq war. And the MPs’ massive expenses fraud would have gone uncovered. And this morning there is news of another initiative that makes me proud to have been involved at close quarters with the national press.  

The UK’s two biggest selling newspapers have threatened legal action unless the reasons for the decision to free sex attacker John Worboys are revealed.

The Sun and the Daily Mail have jointly written to the Parole Board and the Justice Secretary to say that unless the reasons behind the decision to recommend the rapist’s release from prison are published within seven days, the papers’ lawyers will apply for a full judicial review to have that decision overturned.

Their letter says the report is a “matter of profound public interest” and keeping it secret is a breach of open justice.

Black cab driver Worboys was jailed indefinitely in 2009 for drugging and sexually assaulting women passengers. Although convicted of “only” nineteen offences relating to twelve victims, he is suspected to have committed more than a hundred sexual assaults. And now a new allegation of historical sexual assault has been made against the 60-year-old Worboys.

The incident, which was reported to the police earlier this month, is reported to have taken place in 1997. The controversial Parole Board decision to approve his release later this month, following his minimum eight-year term, has led to a moral outcry – with lawyers for his victims describing the move as “extremely distressing.”

And distressing it is. Many would say that to release Worboys ever would be a scandalous breach of natural justice. How could the Parole Board come to the decision that a man proven to be guilty of all those violent crimes should be set free, with the possibility of his re-offending?

I’ll tell you why: because the sorts of people who operate the Parole Board – like the sorts of people who get appointed to the Supreme Court or those members of the House of Lords who, only a fortnight ago, voted further to restrict press freedom – are not as other men. They don’t think and act as we think and act. They are a privileged elite and they consider themselves to be in possession of finer moral sentiments than we ordinary mortals.

Shockingly, you and I can do nothing to oblige these tribunes of the people who are really the enemies of the people to come to their senses and change their minds and their policies.

But the newspapers can. And that’s why newspapers – warts and all – should be celebrated. Let’s hear it then for that secular sacrament, the freedom of the press.  

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14 Dec

A new Puritan Commonwealth?

We have complete freedom of speech in this country. It’s just that we’re not allowed to say anything. Our politicians are forever boasting of our freedoms and telling us what a wonderful country we are privileged to live in – unlike Johnny Foreigner in any number of dictatorial regimes abroad.

But this week the government has threatened – not for the first time – to invoke Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013.

What’s that when it’s out?

Just about the most unjust and iniquitous piece of legislation you could imagine in the worst of your Orwellian nightmares. Section 40 will force newspapers to pay the legal costs of those who sue them – even when a newspaper wins the court case against its accuser.

This is beyond outrageous.

Consider this comparison: my neighbour is building a low wall between our properties and I don’t like it. He assures me that the wall will do nothing to obscure my view or reduce the amount of sunshine I enjoy in my garden. His proposed wall, he says, is less than a foot tall and merely ornamental. But I am renowned for being obstreperous and uncooperative and I tell my neighbour I still don’t like his wall and I’m going to sue him.

The case comes before the court which rules that there is nothing offensive or intrusive about my neighbour’s wall and that I am just being unreasonable. My action is thrown out.

If Section 40 were to be applied in this case, my neighbour – who has been adjudged to be in the right – could be forced to pay my legal costs.

In other words, Section 40 is a charter for mischievous litigants. It will permit any crank out to make a fast buck to sue any newspaper about anything, secure in the knowledge that, win or lose, his costs will be paid by the paper.

It’s easy to see where this will lead in pretty quick time: newspapers will be bankrupted and titles will close down.

Who could possibly have dreamed up a process so manifestly unethical? Answer: the commissars in Lord Leveson’s Press Recognition Panel.

The government – any government – will rejoice to see newspapers shut down – because it will mean they are no longer held to account. If Leveson’s recommendations had been in operation at the time of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there would have been no expenses scandal because there would have been no free press to investigate and report it.

A free press is the first requirement of a free society and every totalitarian dictatorship from Maduro’s Venezuela to Putin’s klepto-fascist regime in Russia seeks to curtail and even abolish press freedom.

Even the Puritan John Milton, who was employed by Oliver Cromwell as his censor, fervently defended press freedom in his Areopagitica  saying: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Section 40 would impose upon us a restrictiveness and repression worse than that of the Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-1660

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13 Nov

Many Big Brothers are Watching You!

Relentlessly, day by day, the surveillance society is becoming more total – the word I am looking for is totalitarian

Last Saturday I was invited by the Church of England authorities to attend what is called a Safeguarding Course. If I had declined this “invitation,” I would have no longer possessed my work permit: the Bishop’s permission for me to officiate as a priest. So, along with thirty other priests and laypeople, I endured a couple of hours brainwashing session in which I was told to look out for incidences of “physical, mental, sexual or emotional abuse of children or adults.” Suggestions were offered as to how I might go about this. I should, for example, listen to children’s conversation from which I might glean some insight into their home life.

I was so uneasy about this that I mentioned it to my taxi driver on the way home in order to discover what he thought about these Safeguarding techniques. “Oh don’t talk to me about Safeguarding. I’m full up to here with it. We taxi drivers were told by the Safeguarders that we should look closely at our women passengers for signs of physical abuse. It’s sick, I tell you”

The Safeguarding industry is a nationalised industry and it has its branches everywhere. Clergy, teachers, doctors, nurses, members of the police and those in many other professions have to receive this education.

Everyone is under scrutiny

Safeguarding must be one of the most flourishing industries in the country and I wouldn’t know where to start to try to calculate just how many hundreds of thousands are involved in it. In the Diocese of Chichester alone, there is a full time Safeguarding supremo with his own office and machinery for the production and dissemination of propaganda on a huge scale. The supremo has many part time assistants who all report to him. And every parish church must appoint its own Safeguarding officer. If I suspect that someone I come across in the course of my work is being abused in any of the four ways mentioned above, I must on no account use my own judgement and, perhaps, intervene to find out what’s going on. No, though I am a priest with a lifetime’s experience, I must regard myself as incapable of any qualities of discernment and of any moral authority and, in the words of our safeguarding tutor, “Simply report your suspicions to your Safeguarding officer. And that’s your job done.”

Now, what does the “job done” look like? It might involve a child being removed from the family home by social workers. Or, in a recent case a teacher sent an email to an underage pupil which was suspected of ambiguity. Did it contain a sexual reference? Not according to the girl who received it. But others saw it and thought it did contain a sexual element and reported it to their Safeguarding officer who in turn reported it to the police.  The police interviewed the teacher but no charges were made. But, because an allegation had been made – albeit by people to whom the original message had not been addressed – the teacher was put on the sex offenders’ register. No trial. No charges. So the teacher was innocent – but he was being treated as if he were guilty.

Big Brother is no longer just a nasty character in a novel by George Orwell. He is alive and sitting in his office in charge of surveillance. In fact he is sitting in thousands upon thousands of offices nationwide.

I returned home to Eastbourne from that Safeguarding Course and opened the newspaper where I read:

“The headmaster of Eastbourne College, Mr Tom Lawson, was having to vet the sermons of visiting preachers – including bishops – in case there might be a complaint about extremism. Mr Lawson claimed that stifling rules and red tape had forced him to do this.”

So we have universal Safeguarding, we have safe spaces in our universities where students are hermetically sealed in case they come up against some ideas which they might find uncongenial. In alleged cases of abuse, we see many thousands of those accused treated as if they are guilty and punished accordingly without there having been any public examination of the allegations; and in some cases where the accused himself is not even made aware of the substance of the allegations.

We have complete freedom of speech. It’s just that we’re not allowed to say anything. Surveillance is endemic. The truth is being set at naught. Our liberties are everywhere traduced.

These things are not happening in some remote dystopia.

They are happening now and in England

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