Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The chilling atmosphere created by Leveson

With all the fuss about Lord Justice Leveson's reported 'threat to quit'** over Michael Gove's comments, it is worth looking again at the words that prompted this response.

The remarks in question were made by the Education Secretary in a speech to the press gallery earlier this year, when Mr Gove warned of "a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from !he debate around Leveson."

This idea that free expression could be stifled by the mere debating of Leveson rather than the imposition of his eventual recommendations, seemed a novel one at the time, but only with this latest row did I decide to look into what Gove meant.

Free speech has become the motherhood and apple pie of the Leveson inquiry - with no one declaring themselves to be opposed to it, and being seen as being against it is undesirable to say the least.

So it seems important we get some examples of this "chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression"?

After all, if the Leveson Inquiry, which I generally take to be a good thing, is said to have an impact which I generally take to be a bad thing, I would like to know more.

So too did the Inquiry. When they asked Mr Gove to expand on the remarks and give evidence. Mr Gove responded:

"In the conversations I have had with journalists and others in the last few months I have been struck by their feelings that there is a desire on the part of influential figures, politicians, lawyers and celebrities to use the debate around this Inquiry to inhibit free speech and journalistic investigation.
"I have been struck by the concerns expressed by journalists on a range of titles that such publicly expressed external pressure is all in favour of greater restraints on, or regulation of, the press, while the voices strongly in favour of press freedom have been restricted to journalists whose arguments could easily be presented as simple self-interest. For the benefit of the Inquiry I enclose an account of the relevant passages of my speech which I believe to be accurate."

But the notes from his speech offer no further evidence, nor was this specific point addressed in these terms during his appearance before the Inquiry.

So to be exact, the chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression is at present being demonstrated by journalists, well, expressing their view that the evidence given to the inquiry has been somewhat one-sided.

Not quite what I thought Michael Gove meant, however valid such views may be.

In fairness to Mr Gove he states in his evidence that his Press Gallery speech was done without notes so dwelling on his exact formulation of words could be overdoing it.

Yet since so many reports picked up this "chilling" line, one would presume if he had been misinterpreted, he would have said so by now.

One day there will be a debate about whether Leveson's eventual proposals threaten the free expression of views, but needless to say that debate will only kick off in earnest when we have those recommendations.

Only then will we be able to assess whether it is a case of chilling, deep-freezing or even microwaving freedom of speech.

**Blog post hopefully to follow on this point.

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