- Did you not notice that Leveson hurt no one in power? That he didn't finish the career of Jeremy Hunt, even though the beggars in the street suspected that he had broken ministerial guidelines? That he did not lay a glove on David Cameron and that his criticism of Rupert Murdoch was so polite it allowed News Corp to retain control of BSkyB? Can you not see an establishment stitching up a winding sheet for our freedoms in front of your very eyes? Or doesn't it bother you as long as it upsets Paul Dacre? - Nick Cohen.
actually considered booting me out on the basis of a malicious complaint made by two journalists trying to suppress reporting of their behaviour in a certain way. Now, laughably it has informed me that ‘the NUJ ethics council is trying to find out more information about some of the pressures members face to report events in a certain way.’
Brazen bull. The last time I told the council about such pressures it suspended me for six months, even though its ill judged verdict was later booted out by the Appeals Tribunal. So on this occasion I was not going to dignify it with any response whatsoever. No form filling, no ticking boxes, no anything that would help that clique justify its existence.
For too long our union has lived with the apocryphal story that the Ethics Council is actually ethical. When there is so little evidence to support such a contention it is amazing that journalists, who are supposed to be discerning creatures, actually buy into it.
The point about an ethical deficiency is underscored by consideration of the Ethics Council's compliant and submissive approach to last year's Leveson inquiry. The most invidious challenge to the independence of journalism in aeons was mounted under the auspices of Leveson who sought to mask a failure on the part of law enforcement by strategically assaulting journalism. Its purpose, to strengthen the hand of the state against the one institution with the power to potentially scrutinise it. Would MI5 have worded the Ethics Council's submission to Leveson any differently? It is doubtful. Why would it? As the Chartered Institute of Journalists pointed out, no matter how light touch the current Leveson proposal for regulation actually is it in fact opens ‘the door to tough state interference in free speech under a future government.’
Chris Frost, the chair of the Ethics Council, in a witness statement to Leveson, endeavouring to put a smile on the face of a corpse and portray a retreat as some form of advance, said:
We have a number of important freedoms in this country: the freedom to own property, the freedom to trade, the freedom to carry out an occupation, but all these freedoms are limited by the need to protect the freedoms of others ... Once you accept that press freedom is not absolute it is a matter of working out the best forms of checks and balance.
Unalloyed tripe, a shout of 'forward to the rear'. If ever there was a thin edge of the wedge argument being made it was here. The Ethics Council at Leveson moved to open the door through which the metaphorical tanks of government could roll while Frost and colleagues will supposedly defend freedom of expression from some imaginary Maginot Line with the same degree of success as the French achieved in 1940.
No surprise that the Vichy outcome was lambasted by one of our union colleagues who resigned in protest as a ‘squalid deal which has granted politicians power over newspapers for the first time in more than 300 years.’ Ethical leadership? Nick Cohen called it right in saying that ‘the NUJ's wretched leaders are supporting statutory regulation of press, we have been fighting that since the 1640s.’ Even Leveson seemed gobsmacked.
Yet none of this seemed to weigh on Frost who would later argue in the Press Gazette that ‘strong regulation should bring higher standards which should bring better journalism.’
Absolute bollix on a par with the suggestion that a stronger law of gravity will cause apples to rise. It leaves no room to wonder why Andrew Gilligan could so easily level the charge that Frost sadly flunked the truth test.
Both our union leadership and its Ethics Council moved as they did ‘without the slightest consultation with members.’ Because of that the Chartered Institute of Journalists president, Charlie Harris, did not miss and hit the wall in claiming that our leadership's backing of the execrable porposal for regulation was an 'insupportable attack on the integrity of its own members.'
Apart from setting off on an ultimately fruitless pursuit of me, what exactly was the Ethics Council doing while the Leveson inquiry was in full flow? Here was an unprecedented opportunity to really shape public debate. In a time characterised by the Western state suffocation of autonomous sources of information, the council was gifted an opportunity to make the ethical case against the dangerous principle of political regulation. Can anybody recall any statement of significance outside of Leveson that it delivered? Inside Leveson it proposed not resistance but compliance.
Unfortunately our union leadership has mortgaged out its soul as a host to the virus that is the current Ethics Council. It has allowed this bunch of jolly hockey sticks toffs to open the gates of Fortress Free Speech to the Trojan Horse of censorship.
Why does our union require an Ethics Council that is ethically impoverished, that is corrosive of free speech, that gladhands the state? The interests of government not those of journalism are being protected by statutory regulation. The Ethics Council in its eagerness to root out what it labels unethical is oblivious to Albert Camus who over half a century ago observed that 'a free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.'
Of course, by way of anecdote, the ethos of the Ethics Council was personified to me during my farcical trial when one of the panel of adjudicators told me in fine Levesonion tones it was the council’s task to police what people said. What possible use to journalism could he be? A man who prefers an eraser to a pen should be in the thought police not a journalists’ union.
The Ethics Council, so demonstrably short on both ethics and ideas, constitutes a serious threat to free expression. It has allowed a permafrost to descend on journalism’s major ethic, that of pushing back the boundaries of censorship. Since the formation of our union in 1907, and the establishment of the Ethics Council in 1986, our Chamberlain moment of 'free speech in our time your lordship' in response to Leveson has heralded its darkest hour.
My advice is this: journalists who have faced ‘pressures to report events in a certain way’ really need to view the Ethics Council as a dog would a lamppost.