I do admire Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary. When virtually all of the other Conservative cabinet members from David Cameron on downwards have proven themselves to be one disappointment, letdown and betrayal of principle after another, at least Michael Gove has been steadfastly working away at the Department for Education to bring about some real, conservative reforms.
So I was several steps beyond overjoyed when I found out that Gove had been giving evidence to the riveting Leveson Enquiry “into the culture, practices and ethics of the press”.
Suffice it to say that Leveson met his match yesterday:
Bravo! Since our taxpayer money is being frittered away in order that this pompous, self-aggrandising old gasbag Leveson can sit there like some modern-day oracle, cooking up new ways to constrain freedom of speech in our country, I am happy that those of us who disagree with the premise of the whole enquiry in the first place were able to extract some small measure of payback by sending Michael Gove into the fray to make him squirm a bit.
A couple of points to note from this video:
1. Just look at Leveson’s defensive, hunched posture compared to the relaxed, attentive stance of Gove. Leveson is clearly used to being flattered and deferred to almost all the time, and clearly was not ready to have his assumptions – and the preordained outcome of the enquiry – challenged in so articulate a fashion.
2. This is supposed to be an impartial enquiry, remember? So statements like “Don’t you think that the evidence I have heard from at least some of those who have been the subject of press attention can be characterised as rather more than ‘some people are going to be offended some of the time’?” have no place being uttered by Leveson. What does it matter what other evidence he has heard? Michael Gove is on the stand now, giving his opinion, which rightly should be his alone and not influenced by the parade of people who have already taken the stand. I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t that how these things are supposed to work? This is clearly a man who has made up his mind before he has even started deliberating.
The right-wing press in Britain was of course greatly cheered by this turn of events. From David Hughes, writing at The Telegraph:
Throughout the Leveson Inquiry it’s been pretty evident that it was the lawyers who felt they were the smartest guys in the room. Today that changed. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, gave a virtuoso display of both intellect and guts as he made the case for press freedom. It’s perhaps no surprise that this journalist turned politician should, for the first time, take the argument to the Inquiry and swing it away from its focus on Murdoch and hacking and concentrate its mind on the wider issue of freedom of expression.
Plenty of witnesses have had mini-spats with Robert Jay QC, the counsel for the Inquiry, but no-one has so far tried to lock horns with Lord Leveson himself. Gove did so with brio: “Before the case for regulation is made, there is a case for liberty as well…I am unashamedly on the side of those who say we should think very carefully about regulation. By definition, free speech doesn’t mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.”
Michael Deacon, also writing at The Telegraph, came away similarly impressed:
Mr Gove was once a journalist, and three months ago said the inquiry might have a “chilling” effect on the press. He clearly hadn’t come to roll over. You could see it in his posture: always leaning sharply forward, as if to confront his interrogators. Without embarrassment he described Rupert Murdoch as “one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years”. He spoke out against the creation of new press regulations, and stressed the importance of free speech.
Perhaps all this makes his performance sound pompous. Yet it wasn’t. Even – or perhaps especially – at his most serious, Mr Gove is drolly camp. There’s more than a whiff of Niles Crane about him.
Lord Leveson didn’t seem amused. “I don’t need to be told the importance of liberty, Mr Gove,” he said frostily. “I really don’t.” Mr Gove didn’t so much as blink.
Even the BBC News analysis was quite complimentary:
He is one of the highest profile libertarians in his party and he gave a passionate defence of the right of freedom of speech. But the suggestion that it counted for nothing unless some people were offended some of the time, clearly got under Lord Justice Leveson’s skin.
The long, tense exchange that followed between the two men got to the very heart of the argument that Leveson is wrestling with – whether new laws and regulation will be needed to rein in the press.
The background to all this is a speech Mr Gove made a few months ago when he warned that the Leveson inquiry could have a “chilling” effect on press freedoms.
The education secretary has expressed his concern that the case for liberty could be drowned out by the anger over phone hacking. This performance in the witness box ensures that that argument will be heard and his close relationship with the prime minister means it’s a message that will go right to the top once the inquiry reaches its conclusion.
Sadly, this excellent exchange is highly unlikely to have any bearing on the outcome of the enquiry, the findings of which Leveson is probably already writing as he still hears evidence. Leveson clearly views himself as the moral arbiter of the media, and will no doubt recommend some new burdensome regulations and oversight to further suppress freedom of expression in the press. The best hope for those on my side of the argument will be that as has been the case with so many other enquiries, the findings will be warmly praised, filed away and never acted upon.
Nonetheless, yesterday was a good day for freedom of expression in Britain, as Michael Gove revealed the faux-concern of the Levesons and other pro-regulation afficionados for the overbearing, control-freakish sham that it is, and sounded a call to arms for the defence of freedom of speech in this country.