A cold shower on Brian Leveson’s blueprint for restraining the British press has come from the secretary-general of the Council of Europe. Thorbjorn Jagland has told the FT “You do not need a new law to say that phone hacking is illegal. It’s already a crime… and you can enforce existing laws to deal with the problem” (FT Weekend edition: Council of Europe warns on Leveson plan). Mr Jagland is quoted as saying that although he has been troubled by what has been going on in the UK with “the Murdoch papers” and the BBC, he was also “very cautious about any kind of new [press] regulation.”
Mr Jagland took issue with the UK government publicly back in April this year, when he criticised attempts by HMG to clip the wings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in favour of allowing more discretion to national courts over issues like the UK’s blanket ban on votes for prisoners. He said then that the biggest problem for the workings of the Strasbourg court was not the occasional disagreement with lawmakers in the UK. Instead, he said, it was the routine failure of too many European states to uphold their binding commitments to the European Convention in their own laws and law-courts. That catalogue of failures by European state authorities towards their own citizens in the fields of freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, protection from the use of lethal force by the state and many other areas drives thousands of people every month to seek justice from the Strasbourg court, even though the process usually takes years.
I wonder if Mr Jagland’s latest remarks might prompt a bit of a re-think among British editors at this time of trial. Lately many sections of the UK press have written with open hostility or even scorn about Europe’s human rights court, without apparently noticing that its landmark rulings upholding press freedom have provided solid foundations for Britain’s best traditions of irreverent and inquiring journalism – by establishing the concept of the public interest defence, journalists’ right to protect their sources, and banning any special protection for the reputation of politicians and public figures in libel cases.
Yes it’s hard to deny that Strasbourg is “in Europe”. But the Council of Europe and the Convention were the brainchild of an Englishman: Winston Churchill. And British judges (wise ones) have probably contributed more than those of any other member state to developing a body of case law which enjoys international respect and now sets global standards. The Council of Europe itself is now grappling with the issue of how to remedy its own failure (my word) hitherto to monitor assaults on press freedom and enforce the Convention so as to protect the lives and work of journalists more effectively as a pillar of democracy. Jagland’s warning against any resort to statute in the UK is timely, and should be noted by those who will decide.