Sir Harold Evans last night condemned Fleet Street’s campaign against statutory underpinning of the press as a “gross distortion”.
And he gave his backing to the Leveson plan – supporting statutory backing for a new press regulator and saying that a proposed law guaranteeing press freedom would be a huge step forward.
Delivering the tenth annual Cudlipp lecture last night at the London College of Communications, Sir Harold noted that all the proposed Leveson bills set out a law guaranteeing press freedom in the UK for the first time.
He said such a law would have helped him in his battles with the authorities over Thalidomide and potentially offer UK journalists similar protection to that enjoyed by colleagues in the US under the first amendment.
Noting that 2,156 names are on the Washington memorial to journalists killed doing their jobs around the world, Evans condemned the “sleaze merchants” involved in the hacking scandal.
He said: “The whole culture that fed them was rotten, corrupt, bullying, mean and cynical, inured to the misery caused by their intrusions.
“They betrayed the ideals and principles that had animated generations of journalists and why? Because they felt they were above the law, mainly because their proprietor was above the law.
“They were merely detritus of what is referred to us too cosy a relationship between politicians and the press. Cosy, how about corrupt?”
'Cynicism and arrogance' of press reaction to Leveson
Rounding on press reaction to last November’s Leveson report, Sir Harold said: “As distressing and depressing as exposure of the dark arts has been it is deepened by the cycnicsm and arrogance of much of the reaction to Leveson coming from figures in the press who did nothing to penetrate, indeed whose inertia assisted, the cover-up conducted into oblivion by News International. A cover-up that would have continued but for the skill of Nick Davies and the courage of his editor.”
He said: "A certain rowdiness is okay, but the misrepresentation of Leveson’s proposal is staggering on statutory underpinning (let’s call it SU). To portray his careful construct for SU as state control is an amazingly gross distortion.I don’t know how anybody could have the nerve to do it.
“In the fine but poorly reported debate in the House of Lords, Norman Fowler expressed his discomfort at his transition from a defender of the press as a journalist and Conservative Minister to a critic. I know the feeling.
“He says he is confirmed in his conviction that there must be change, as I am, by the dishonest campaign mounted against change by some of the most powerful figures in the industry.
"Rather than admit that there has been abuse of power, they seem to feel they have been unfairly put upon. Even before the Leveson report there were advertisements with pictures of Mugabe, Assad, Castro and Putin with the caption, 'These people believe state control of the press. Do you?'"
Sir Harold said he thought Leveson’s proposals to remove journalists’ exemption from the Data Protection Act were “dangerous” and a “a gift for the litigious and the cunning”. And he said Leveson’s proposal that the new regulation should ultimately lie under Ofcom was “ridiculous.” He also said he was opposed to the idea of the threat of exemplary damages being used as an incentive to join the new regulator.
But on the whole, he said Leveson provides a “way to protect privacy and encourage high standards while enlarging, not diminishing, the freedom of the press”.
Evans: Leveson does not mean state control
“Lord Leveson did not propose that a law should be passed laying down how the press should behave. It did not suggest that civil servants or ministers should act as censors.
“Did not. Did not. He entirely accepted that it should regulate itself through a trust, though with independent opinion dominant.
“He more or less accepted the architecture proposed by the press but wanted a surveyor to check that its foundations were stable. Let me emphasise: he sees regulation of the press organised by the press, but with a statutory process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met. Which they have not been in previous incarnations.”
Leveson Act would have helped in Thalidomide legal battle
Sir Harold noted that the first clause in all of the four draft Leveson bills before Parliament states that “ministers shall not interfere with the freedom of the press”.
He said: “The press has never before in its entire history had a legal duty imposed on the government to respect and honour the freedom of ther press. I can remember in my long hours in the courtroom on this issue or that – the Crossman diaries, Philby, Thamidomide, Ireland - that we had nowhere to turn, we were totally dependant on case law and that case law had been determined not by cases of public merit… they were drawn from the last century”.
He added: “When Leveson comes up with a legal guarantee of the freedom of the press written into the first clause of these bills and possibly enacted, it is spurned and misrepresented. What the hell is going on?”
Sir Harold said he believed that the “American constitution and the first Amendment has protected the American press and given it a greater freedom than we have ever known in this country…
“I regard the Leveson plan, with those very serious exceptions that I mentioned - and particuarly his utter failure to deal with media concentration - I regard the proposals on statutory underpinning not as a threat but as an opportunity.
“An opportunity if it’s crafted properly, an opportunity to...[see what] further goodness the British press might do free of the internal restraints (in my time the print unions and a propietor whan I was at The Times), and the external restraints of the law.
“What if we dreamt a little? What if the intellectual analysis of the heavies and the tremendous flair in tabloid journalism were bent to more positive outcomes – such as Hugh Cudlipp dreamt in his youth and achieved so well in his prime.”