Quentin Letts: 'We must restate our intention, as a Street, to chase and harry and expose the liars in every corner of British public life'

This story first appeared in the autumn edition of Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly published in September. To subscribe (from £19.90 a year) call 0845 073 9607. Please say if you would like your subscription to include the current edition.

By golly, it’s political, this Leveson business. Political on so many levels. Political on a narrow newspaper-office politics level, with Fleet Street managing editors jumping like circus fleas every time a columnist tries to mention the esteemed Lord Justice Brian.

It’s political in that stuffy, nastily-lit inquiry room at the Royal Courts of ‘Justice’. What a bent choice of venue. The Iraq Inquiry, which is looking into a far greater scandal, had to make do with the less loaded setting of the QE2 conference centre.

It has been political, too, in the selection of witnesses, the varying aggression of the questioning (why so soft on Blair?), the peculiar diversion into all that palaver about ministerial special advisers. And we haven’t even mentioned leading counsel Mr Jay’s Che Guevara beard. Never trust a man with spindly face fungus!

Yes, politics has been threaded through all this the way fat marbles good beef. It is political in the way it has been covered by the hyperactive Beeb and their friends at The Guardian and (does anyone still read it now Simon Carr has gone?) The Independent.

Biff the right-wing inkies. Tear down Rupert and his transatlantic son. Screw Cameron. I don’t recall the BBC giving the Hutton Inquiry or the Iraq Inquiry and certainly not the cash-for-peerages episode nearly this level of coverage. Quelle surprise.

Most of all, though, l’affaire Leveson and the phone-hacking saga have been political in the way the British Establishment, from big Tum Watson to the Director of Public Prosecutions (first name: Keir), from ‘Thought for the Day’ bores to that flawed specimen John Prescott –  has over-reacted like a coach party of goosed mother superiors.

Their shock! Their horror! Their veritable saintliness! How they would love to close us down.

From day one, it has been hard to resist the suspicion that this thing has been part-fuelled by vengeance linked to the MPs’ expenses exposé.

Our ruling cadre hates the jaunty press. It has hated us for decades. Our cheekiness. Our scepticism. Our amplification of the voice of the voters. Our pursuit of injustice. Our cartooning of foolishness and excess and greed and lawyerly obfuscation.

Now they have us on the gurney and they are jabbing us with everything they’ve got.

We had better get the admission out of the way here and now: some of the phone-hacking was not just poor form but was also wicked, unethical, plain grisly. Eavesdrop on the Dowlers? Come off it, guys. There is a line between newsdesk zeal and newsdesk squalor and that crossed it.

I find it hard to worry quite as much about the hacking of Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant but must confess I don’t particularly care what they get up to in their birthday suits. I would make a terrible editor. When I ran the Peterborough column on the old Daily Telegraph, we had a rule which stated “nothing below the navel” and that’s still fine by me when it comes to fading matinee idols like Hughie.

We can partly blame ourselves for this Leveson Inquiry. If only we hadn’t become so hooked on celebrity gossip! But many readers like that sort of thing and editors have to worry about circulation.

But was phone-hacking really so foul an alleged crime that it necessitated an inquiry on the scale of Leveson?

You can understand the establishment’s rage. Fleet Street has long tormented the cheats and posers of British public life.

That man Murdoch and his confreres on the other powerful papers ran a Eurosceptic operation which made it impossible for the Geoffrey Howes and Leon Brittans and Peter Mandelsons to surrender our birthright to Brussels and Berlin.

When you think how Prescott’s leg-eauverings were reported with such merriment you can maybe comprehend his daily attacks on the media. Can anyone truly be surprised that fetishist Max Mosley wants to stop papers writing stories about orgies?

Bishops, high court judges, BBC managers, trade unionists, quangocrats, civil servants: all have been turned over something rotten by the fourth estate over the years. If we weren’t hated, we would have failed in our vocation.

What dismays me is the way we have, as an industry, been so muted in our response to Leveson and the rest. We have pulled our punches, wrung our palms, run scared.

The editors, en masse, seem to have decided that it would be bad form to growl at our attackers. We can marvel at their self-restraint but this pacifist approach may not be wise. The governing elite must be hardly able to believe its luck. Ripostes are our forté but ripostes to Leveson have been as rare as teeth in Joe Jordan’s smile.

Watching the Leveson Inquiry, I have been surprised by the compliance of some of the witnesses.

If by some long shot I had been called to give evidence, I fear I would have found it hard not to snap at highly-paid Mr Jay QC: “For God’s sake, chum, it’s a free country and we have a DUTY to tweak the noses of the scoundrels who govern us.”

Time and again, the Levesonians have sneered at tabloid taste. What they’re sneering at is public taste, of course. The nasty populus. Oik polloi.

Kelvin really stuffed it to them and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre did well in his second innings. Michael Gove played a blinder. But others padded up. Shades of John Edrich batting for a draw.

The Levesonians have seemingly been aghast at the scheming and deceits found behind the arras of journalistic-political life.

Lord Justice Brian states his belief in the idea of a free press but his displeasure when Gove dared stand up to him was dismayingly, childishly intolerant. We papers should have said so, strongly.

Leveson and his friends have shown little grasp of the British public square being as noisy and chaotic and disputatious as Marrakesh’s Jema el-Fna when the sun goes down and the drums start to bash.

Were it any other way, our democracy would be weaker. Our politicians are already worryingly out of touch. Imagine how much more remote from public opinion they would be if they did not have the press breathing down their collars.

Some of us will feel a temptation, once Leveson has reported, to attack David Cameron. It was his decision to set up the damn inquiry, after all.

Maybe this anti-Cameroning has already started. But to do that would be to do the work of the Beeb and Co. It would make us look cheap. (You mean we’re not already?)

I’d prefer us, as an industry, to broaden our scope and restate our intention, as a Street, to chase and harry and expose the liars in every corner of British public life, because that is our calling, our function, our business.

You only have to read Private Eye to see that there are lots of slippery Sams out there and plenty of them are going unreported by the nationals.

We could start with every paper carrying an oped: “why journalism matters”.

But let every paper also up its game when it comes to reminding our rulers that they are being watched every step of the way. As every corner man knows, prizefighters need to come out fighting.

The alternative is to sustain not just a bloody nose but also a knockout.

Quentin Letts is a freelance journalist who writes mainly for the Daily Mail. This column was published in September in Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly.

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