Boobs, booby traps, and matters Leveson

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 18 March 2013 in Diary
Debating the Leveson proposals is much like wrangling over the abolition of Page Three – it’s just as much an argument of ‘freedom from’ as ‘freedom to’


In 1986, former Labour MP and professional Blair-botherer, Clare Short, introduced a Private Member's Bill that would have abolished Page Three. The arguments against Page Three, most of which I agree with, are well worn and I don't plan to go into them here. As always, chaps, feel free to vent your sweaty-palmed outrage in the comments at this snook against the ainshunt liberteez wot George Orwell wrote about.

That said, I’m not sure whether Page Three should be banned but I am clear that it shouldn’t exist. I mean, it’s a bit degrading isn’t it ladies? I’ve long held that, if selling sex were so empowering, the patriarchy would have been up to it years ago. The response to the Bill was swift, depressing, and predictable: she was – and by extension those who shared her point of view were – derided by The Sun as a “killjoy” as well as branded “fat and jealous”, as if every granny in the land has a secret desire to have bangers good enough to be leered at by the great British public.

Less famously, she wrote a book as a result of her failed attempt to legislate against boobs at the breakfast table. Entitled Dear Clare, it was a collection of all the letters she had received, mostly from women, saying how they supported what she had tried to do. The correspondents ranged from mothers worried about how their daughters were aspiring to be nothing more than fleshy playthings, to women who had been raped, and felt that Page Three encouraged the idea that consent in sex was not really that important; that they were all “up for it”.

These women may or may not have been right in their analysis but, aside from the voice Short’s book allowed them, their opinions were not widely heard in the debate surrounding the Bill at the time. Sex sells, as the cliché goes, and the free press knew that fun-bags upped the circulation figures nicely. Oh, and freedom of speech and the press too amirite?

These arguments are technically correct and, at the most basic level, it’s not the business of politicians to tell a free press what they are and are not allowed to print within the boundaries of what is permitted.

But I’d have a lot more sympathy with these brave seekers after truth, as Francis Urquhart once described them with the merest hint of a sardonically raised eyebrow, if they had given the women who had written to Short an equal opportunity to put their point of view across. You know, in the interests of balanced reporting and the freedom of speech. And it’s here that the entire cynical hypocrisy is laid as bare as the breasts of Nikki, 19, from Kent: because it really isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about money in the pockets of newspaper owners and dissenting voices and their right to be heard be damned.

The press then, as now on Leveson, controlled the terms of the debate.

It looks like there has been an agreement on Leveson in the early hours of this morning, so Peter Bone MP is going to be denied his attempt to make the House sit into the early hours like the good old days. The chuntering, however, from the media, continues apace.

If one were to go solely on the press coverage of the Leveson shenanigans, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the proposal for statutory underpinning meant that every story would have to be cleared by the prime minister and the culture, media and sport select committee. Actually, all that statutory underpinning means is that the independent regulatory body would be established by legislation, in a manner similar to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) that now administers MPs’ expenses, after they blotted their copybook on this score a couple of years ago.

Judging from the complaining that still emanates from the body politic about IPSA and its practices, the notion that statutory underpinning in its case at least did not equal “entirely controlled by politicians.” Quite the reverse in fact.

This is not to say, of course, that in the media’s case, the legislation might be harmful to the free press, but it emphatically does not follow that statutory underpinning per se automatically equals state control of our principal organs of record.

Yes, the press should be free to report. Free to shine light into grubby corners of our society. Hell, free to print boobs if they want to. But we the punters are entitled to freedom too. Or, more specifically, freedom from: freedom from unwarranted intrusion into our private lives, freedom from misrepresentation, freedom from the sort of practices that made the coalition commission Leveson in the first place. The “positive liberty” of the press (freedom to) needs to be offset by the “negative liberty” we as individuals have a right to in a democracy (freedom from). Isaiah Berlin students: you can thank me later.

Leveson and statutory underpinning might not be the best way to achieve this. But it is not unreasonable for Hacked Off to feel that, just as the press is entitled to freedom, so are the rest of us, within certain boundaries. The press on the other hand gives the impression that – unlike any other organisation or individual – there should be no boundaries for itself.

Hacked Off and Clare Short’s letter writers have one thing in common: they have been derided, mocked, and smeared with the intent of silencing them by a press with a vested financial interest in keeping them quiet, whilst claiming that this is in the interests of freedom of speech.

Al Pacino said in The Devil’s Advocate that “freedom means never having to say you’re sorry”. If we’re on the side of the angels on this one, and regardless of whether you’re pro or anti the Leveson proposals, we should recognise that there’s a lot more to it than simply that.

Tags: Clare Short, Leveson, Page Three, Sadie Smith

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