In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The Cleaning of Our Streets


I have just signed the Hacked Off Declaration of Support for the Royal Charter for Press Self-Regulation. All three political parties are committed to this interpretation of Leveson’s recommendations. The rival version is known as “Ipso” and is favoured by most of the Press, all of whose previous systems of self-regulation have been a hollow and meaningless charade. I strongly recommend to everyone who reads this piece that they should do as I have done.

You can place your “signature” on the Hacked Off website, where you can also get more background and read other people’s views. I myself have absolutely no doubt on this subject and do not accept in any way that the issue here is one of free speech vs political control. Nothing so grand. It is a matter simply of requiring the Press to behave responsibly as citizens and not as arrogant and predatory warlords.

But I think there are some issues of principle here that go beyond the important matter on which Hacked Off is campaigning. Perhaps it is worth trying to highlight them. Will Hutton, a journalist himself, ex-editor of “The Observer,” has helped to get me off the ground by making the following distinction in a recent article : “[In resisting the Royal Charter] the British Press does not want to be the provider of trusted information for citizens … it wants to be free to shape the square and the character of the information it supplies, with as little redress and accountability as possible. That’s not Press freedom: that is arbitrary Press power.”

But once the essentials are set out in this way, we can see that the issue before us is not just our largely still feral and vicious Press, putting persuasion ahead of truth-telling, sales ahead of social responsibility ; more generally, it is the use and abuse of power  ; and it concerns the nature of language itself, how tangibly powerful language can be in creating or destroying trust, and hence our Society and civilisation ; and whether and with what precision our use of language – this potent element – can be made more accountable.

When the hoodlums down at The Mail decide to do someone over, they drag the person into an alley and lay in without fear, knowing the law can’t get them because their hooliganism is “merely” verbal. Yet language can be as powerful and destructive as boot and knife. Used by hooligans, it can abuse, bruise and infect. Public discourse can becomes Roman Circus, hunting ground, blood-sport, nightmare land, shadowy figures roaming to and fro. And everywhere the honest soul shrinks, deprived of trust and hope and inspiration. Our children despair of the future and will not vote. The grey vote turns in bewilderment and outrage to false echoes of the past.

For we are talking unrestrained hooliganism here, not “freedom of expression”. We are talking gang rule, not Press or News. Language is a main street we need to keep clean and clear and subject to civilised standards, so that truth-tellers can be heard, words properly democratic. The rule of the gang, using language to beat up, break into, intimidate, ensnare, manipulate, deceive, points to disaster for all of us. The hooligans of language need to be brought to book.

And there are many hooligans of language. Our present problems with the Press are just one example. Our real problem is with ourselves and those we allow to represent us and hold sway. For instance, if the advertising industry must abide by an enforceable code of truth-telling, should not politicians as well ? The latter are selling a product no less than the former, with a temptation and capacity to deceive just as great, and a social responsibility even greater. The blatant and puerile Coalition lie that the international financial crash of 2008 was “all Gordon’s fault,” “all Labour’s fault,” has been astonishingly and outrageously effective ; yet it is well said that Democracy means and is measured by access to truth. Senior Coalition politicians, holders of high and ancient offices, keep repeating this lie, but every time they do so, our democracy, their standing and their right to stand as democrats or occupy those offices, is weakened and reduced. The lie matters. It is material. The unscrupulous and unworthy politician goes home at night, after his latest lie, saying, “Aha, I sold another rotten cabbage today. Aren’t I a clever and enterprising shopkeeper, deceiving my customers to my short-term advantage ? And my party stands to gain, as well.” It’s not  plaudits he should receive from his children at home, however, but their contempt and rejection. On the face of it, he and his party might seem to gain, for now. But his children are certain to lose, because in whittling yet more shavings from public trust, their father is helping to destroy his children’s inheritance and for that alone he should be arrested.

I am not sure what is the opposite of “poison.” Let’s go with “cleanse.”  I experience language as something as vital as earth and air, as central to human being as those two elements. Therefore it matters pressingly and tangibly how language is used. It is a matter of survival. It is a matter of survival that we demand and ensure that the language of our public discourse and public servants is cleansing, not poisonous, that our streets are kept clean. Presently our streets are running over with poison.