The national and local press have a vital role to play in preventing the erosion of our civil liberties, but parliamentary lobby journalists are too close to the Government to effectively contribute to this.
That’s the view of Henry Porter, UK editor of Vanity Fair, whose concern over the issue prompted The Observer, to give him a regular column in the Sunday paper.
Access to information, restrictions of movement, attacks on the powers of Parliament and the curtailing of individual liberties – Porter believes the laws that have been passed by the Labour government reflect its instinct to enhance the power of a centralised authority.
The Government has been allowed to pass a series of laws that ‘the Stasi would have been delighted with’said Porter, who wrote a novel, Brandenburg Gate, about the formidable East German intelligence service.
He now believes a concerted campaign is needed and a high-profile, independent public inquiry to examine the accumulation of personal data by the Government, how it is stored, what it is used for and where the risks to security occur.
‘My worst-case scenario is that this gradualist approach, this stealth approach against liberty, will result in such a reduction both of parliamentary power and individual power that in a crisis there is all the apparatus for the Government to be taken over by some very unpleasant people and control opposition through all their surveillance mechanisms.’
Porter also argues that the ‘innate congenital weakness’of the lobby system has allowed the passing of restrictive laws to be passed unnoticed, except for in the columns of a handful of writers such as Peter Hitchens and Simon Jenkins.
‘A lot of good columnists are writing on it now, the penny has certainly dropped. Everyone gets it. But the news reporting of this stuff has been crap,’said Porter.
‘They haven’t reported it; I had to go back and look at all these Acts myself. You can’t find cuttings on any of it, you can find a bit on some [of the campaigning] websites but the papers have been asleep about it.”
While The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and, to a lesser degree, The Guardian and The Independent, have now done some noteworthy coverage, Porter said the obsession of the tabloid press with anti-social behaviour, and the fact that many of the papers were largely in the power of Tony Blair meant that ‘they just didn’t do the reporting”.
Laws have been passed ‘by stealth’that would have caused ‘howls of protest’if a Tory government had tried to introduced them, Porter claimed.
‘The lobby has completely screwed up on this,’he said. ‘The journalists covering politics didn’t pick it up because they just file from the lobby. This and that comes out one minister’s mouth or the Government’s mouth all off the record and they weren’t looking at what was going through Parliament because it was all considered boring and not pressing the buttons on terror and crime and disorder.”
Porter also accused lobby journalists of being ‘enthralled’to Labour, to Alastair Campbell when he was director of communications and strategy for Tony Blair, and to the ‘Great Project”.
‘I think they thought it had to be good because they’re Labour and we’re all on side and we all believe the Tories are terrible. Also, the system allows them to get so close to politicians and be used so well by them – ‘we’ll give her the story because she was so great to us on that last one’ – that basically they are just training the journalists to be friendly to the Government. That became an absolutely clear pattern of behaviour under Blair’s government.”
Porter, whose documentary Suspect Nation was broadcast on Channel 4 last year, is currently writing a thriller looking at the erosion of civil liberty.
He said he is proud that after he was able to ‘push [the lobby journalists] aside and do the story without them’he was given the column by Observer editor Roger Alton – ‘a unique, brilliant and strange individual’who was one of the few who ‘got it”.
‘I have nothing to do with politicians. I hardly know any ministers, I never go to see them.
‘I never go to Westminster unless it’s to see one of the dissidents in the Labour party or an expert in the Tories,’says Porter.
‘I’m not too close to them, and I think the lobby journalists missed the story because they are too close. They’ve been a complete shower on this subject; they’ve just not done their own reporting and alerted their newsdesks. None of them have done that.”
When he started writing on these issues the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke made a speech saying that Porter, Guardian journalist Jenny Russell and Independent sketch writer Simon Carr [who had been writing on the subject] were ‘spreading poison”, claims Porter.
‘On that morning, I gather, he brought in a lot of the established correspondents and said ‘these are amateurs, they’re second-rate writers’ – he spun against us. A couple of them popped up on various blogs saying the same thingâ€¦ second-raters, haven’t been around Westminster very long. Well, none of us have ever been part of the lobby.”
Power of the state
Porter believes the tendency to curtail the power of the individual and increase the power of the state ‘is encoded in the Labour party’s genetic profile’and that the collection of data is ‘very much a programme”.
‘In 1997, if we had fast forwarded to 2007 we would not believe what we had let go,’said Porter, adding that it was after the authorities began to hold people indefinitely without trial at Belmarsh prison under the provisions of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act that he began to be concerned.
The role the regional and local press has to play is vital if the Government is going to be held to account, Porter claimed.
‘They are the most important. All these unnecessary CCTV cameras, the little invasive schemes, and a paper on a Scottish ID card which has come into force without people realising what it is because it’s called something else.
‘Local newspapers are absolutely crucial in this because they talk to people who are going to vote for a particular MP, and I think these MPs have been very high-minded. Locally, something like the Evesham Journal can really affect people’s opinion. You can stop things happening by just covering them.”
Henry Porter contributes commentary to the Guardian, Observer, Evening Standard and Sunday Telegraph. He is the British editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair and author of four novels