A tyrant’s charter

Published by The Mail on Sunday (8th January, 2017)

Journalism can be a dangerous job. In many places on our planet, rich and powerful people dislike anyone investigating their nefarious affairs and are swift to threaten, imprison, torture and even kill those who do so.

The brave men and women who resist such pressure and report truth in the face of tyranny are not just helping to expose corruption and injustice. They are fighting for something we in Britain take for granted: the right to free expression that is a foundation stone of our democracy.

Small wonder, then, that many journalists in foreign countries look with envy on a place where politicians cannot dictate the public agenda, where censors do not hold sway and where reporters are free to investigate wrongdoing without fear.

So they would be shocked to discover that Britain, the mother of parliamentary democracy, faces the threat of politicians muzzling the press.

We stand on the brink of permitting a self-protecting political class to impose a state- sanctioned regulator – and incredibly, devolving official approval to a body funded by the embittered son of a wartime fascist who ended up on the front pages in a sex scandal.

As human rights groups such as Index on Censorship point out, if such measures were introduced in other countries, British politicians would be the first to scream about dreadful state censorship.

They are right. This draconian measure threatens to protect crooks and dodgy characters while shackling investigative journalism, silencing small publishers and shrinking public accountability of those in power.

I have reported from more than 50 nations, covering coups, conflicts and chaos, and have witnessed first-hand what it is like to operate in regimes where such restrictions are in place.

From Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, I have been privileged to work with journalists who risk their lives and liberty daily to defy authorities in pursuit of stories. They challenge powerful forces with fierce courage and a determination to fight for democratic values.

Several have ended up in jail. Azerbaijan’s superb investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova was convicted on phoney embezzlement charges after exposing a series of dodgy dealings by her president’s family.

In Swaziland I met an editor named Bheki Makhubu, outspoken over the appalling regime of Africa’s last absolute monarch. He spent 15 months in prison after later criticising the conduct of his country’s chief justice.

Others have been forced to flee for safety in the dead of night, such as one reporter I know from Ethiopia. Only last week two more journalists in that repressive state were jailed for trumped-up terrorist offences, joining 16 others behind bars.

They would rightly look on in amazement as Britain sleepwalks towards a future in which the press freedoms they so desire are shackled by state intervention and the threat of crippling legal costs for those who dare to report the truth.

Consider the facts. Four years ago Westminster was still smarting from the fallout over its shameful expenses scandal, which was revealed by a national newspaper and led to criminal convictions for several MPs. Then along came a phone-hacking scandal, sparking anger over the antics of some red-top journalists, and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry that gave politicians the opportunity for revenge.

A cosy deal was cooked up between the three main party leaders – all since ousted from office – and members of Hacked Off, an anti-press lobby group whose best-known figure is film star Hugh Grant.

So now comes Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Acts, snuck through Parliament in just 13 hours despite some MPs complaining of voting on an unseen draft, which empowers a regulator called Impress to oversee publishers, who will otherwise be denied justice in the courts.

This new body is funded by the family of Max Mosley, whose sexual activities were once splashed in the now-closed News of the World newspaper.

This is back-door imposition of state control on the press.

And if that was not bad enough, an official regulator sanctioned by Parliament is getting cash from a rich man crusading to rein in papers after he was caused embarrassment.

Indeed, there is tragic irony in the Government giving recognition to a state body funded by the son of Sir Oswald Mosley – not least when it is egged on by people who call some of Britain’s most popular daily newspapers ‘fascist’ and want them banned.

But it gets worse. Much worse. The most alarming aspect of this move is that it threatens to end the freedom of journalists to expose wrongdoing, investigate errant behaviour and hold the powerful to account. Publishers can choose whether to accept Impress’s authority. But if they refuse, they would be forced to pay all legal costs if a story is challenged in the courts for libel or on grounds of privacy – regardless of the outcome.

Welcome to a world in which journalists and newspapers are punished – and possibly forced out of business – for telling the truth about crooks, thieves and scoundrels. What other law, what other civilised country, acts in such a manner?

This would have a very real and damaging impact on serious journalism. For example, last month I revealed how Britain’s biggest specialist aid contractor obtained secret and sensitive state papers for commercial advantage. Adam Smith International also tried to hoodwink a parliamentary inquiry into fat-cat firms creaming off cash intended for the global poor.

This was a tricky story given the high stakes involved, and it has since led to two official inquiries and a Ministerial intervention. There was a whistleblower needing protection, discussion over legalities of leaked documents, threats of a court challenge, internal debate on public interest concerns. After 30 years reporting and editing newspapers, this is familiar terrain.

Yet in this chilling new world of state control, that wealthy firm could have sued us despite evidence stacked against it, secure in the knowledge that all legal costs would be recoverable. This malign measure threatens to crush investigative journalism, starting with smaller publications and local newspapers struggling for survival in the digital age.

It is particularly perilous for Sunday papers, which have run some of the most important investigations over recent decades, because last-minute injunctions are especially damaging for a publication coming out just once a week.

And it is simply astonishing this is suggested at a time when malevolent states are waging cyber-attacks designed to disrupt Western democracies, provoking justified fears over the destabilising impact of false news flying around social media.

Senior sources at Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, are deeply alarmed by what is happening here. If British investigative journalism, which they regard as the best in the world, can be stifled in this way, what will be the consequences in the Gulf states, still ruled by feudal-style monarchies?

If Theresa May is on the side of decent people, as she proclaims, this destructive legacy of her predecessor’s era must be swept aside when public consultation concludes on Tuesday.

Journalists are troublemakers by nature, yet for all the undoubted sins of my profession, we need people prepared to rake through muck to stem any stench of corruption.

This foolish proposal would propel Britain into the ranks of nations that permit stifling state control of the press. This might please the rich and powerful. It would definitely delight the dodgy and the dubious. But it would demean a democracy that for all its faults remains a beacon of light in some of the world’s darkest corners for its cherished tradition of press freedom.

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