I have looked everywhere. I have Googled, and asked around. But I can find no evidence that Steve Coogan has ever taken the trouble to defend freedom of speech at home or abroad.
I promised myself I would never again mock ‘luvvies’ in politics after I saw Tim Minchin, Dave Gorman, Robin Ince and Dara Ó Briain give up their time to help Index on Censorship’s campaign against Britain’s repressive libel laws. Steve Coogan did not stand alongside them. I have heard Sir Ian McKellen and Sienna Miller protest at Index events in defence of the Belarus Free Theatre, which must ward off the attentions of the Lukashenko dictatorship. But I have never heard a squeak from Coogan.
He lobbies for Hacked Off, which started with a good case against abuses of press power, but degenerated into know-nothing, single-issue fanaticism long ago. Coogan’s record means that a short press release caused lifelong liberals to consider resigning from Index last week. It was ‘delighted to announce’ that Coogan had agreed to become Index’s patron. Coogan was equally delighted as he believed that ‘creative and artistic freedom of expression is something to be cherished’.
This was news to me and many others, who had seen Hacked Off become like the tabloids it opposed. Listen for the familiar hectoring voice, and the routine dismissal of contrary opinions as stupid and corrupt in his assault on David Mitchell last year. His fellow comedian had said in the Observer that liberal hatred of Murdoch was not a good enough reason to tear up basic protections. Rather than argue, Coogan jeered. ‘Despite your ubiquity, you are consistently well above average,’ he said as he dismissed Mitchell’s comedy with the condescension sneering men mistake for wit. Mitchell’s argument against giving politicians unprecedented power to regulate the press, however, was so dumb he could not even patronise it. Mitchell was producing ‘ill-informed and superficial dross’. He was doing the work of press barons. Mitchell’s warnings were ‘astonishing’ and ‘sloppy’. He was a ‘schoolboy’ miles out of his depth.
Still Mitchell, dross-churning schoolboy that he was, could count on the support of Index on Censorship. Parliament’s charter on press regulation undermines the fundamental principle that the press holds politicians to account, it said. ‘Politicians have now stepped in as ringmaster and our democracy is tarnished as a result.’ Events were to show that the politicians could not wait to start cracking the whip. When Telegraph reporters asked about her expenses, an aide for Maria Miller, the former culture secretary, warned them that she was responsible for press regulation and they had better watch what they said.
No one had the right to be surprised. Give politicians the power to influence what writers say about them and they will use it. Even schoolboys know that.
Beyond Parliament’s creation of the first mechanism for political surveillance of the written word in peacetime since the 1690s, there is a more subtle assault on investigative journalism. News organisations that do not sign up to an approved regulator face exemplary damages in the courts, even if they win a libel or a privacy case. J.K. Rowling and other Hacked Off supporters have provided the funds to set up a regulator called Impress. (Geddit?) If the government recognises it, newspapers and magazines will face punitive punishments if they refuse to join, which will kill small journals and deter larger ones from tackling dangerous stories.
Meanwhile, Leveson ruled that police officers tempted to blow the whistle must raise concerns internally rather than speak to journalists. Index on Censorship warned at the time that the lock-down showed how the hacking scandal had heightened the appetite for secrecy. Once again, events have vindicated it. From forces disciplining police officers for tweeting to Parliament approving secret trials, the state has been ‘shackling information’, just as Index predicted it would.
Why is it now embracing Coogan? Its chief executive, Jodie Ginsberg, told me that as an ‘edgy’ comedian he understood the need to confront oppressive power, although she could not point to any instances of him making his opposition public. I think a better explanation lies in understanding how hard it is to defend free speech. It is a warts-and-all liberty. If you are not prepared to be unpopular, if you are not prepared to come to the aid of people you and your friends find repugnant, you should not pretend to support it.
Many do not. Liberty, the largest civil liberties organisation in Britain, ignores free speech. Liberty’s illiberalism does not matter overmuch. Free speech had English PEN and Index on Censorship in the trench alongside it. PEN can take the strain, but it has been hard for Index to bear. Look at the liberal worthies Hacked Off has managed to persuade to support a medieval royal charter imposed by the feudal remnant of the privy council: Danny Boyle, Tom Stoppard, David Attenborough, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Philip Pullman, Ian McEwan, Helen Fielding, John Cleese, and A.S. Byatt.
They would not be the first people I would call on to investigate accusations of police corruption, but they are good men and women nevertheless. The older among them harbour the easy illusion that the right-wing press ruined their country by brainwashing the working class into supporting Margaret Thatcher. All of them believe with more plausibility that the behaviour of many editors and journalists has been despicable. I know a few of them and they will never believe that they are making a terrible mistake. I know too that liberals yearn to be their friends and overlook their occasional errors, as do I in my weaker moments. Better to stay friends than to oppose your own side in bitter public arguments and stand alongside Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre as you do it.
Index, once one of Europe’s most important free-speech organisations, is facing a financial as well as a social crisis. It has made its best people redundant and abandoned its sponsorship of Belarussian journalists. David Aaronovitch, its chairman, said its ‘campaign against state involvement in the regulation of the press almost certainly cost us donors’. His chief executive tells me its opposition to Hacked Off remains unchanged. I wonder if it can be. Henceforth Hacked Off will be able to say: ‘Index can’t believe that we are threatening free speech. We are such good friends now, it has made Steve Coogan its patron.’
There is a grand sense of intellectual independence in E.M. Forster’s line that he would rather betray his country than betray his friends. The truth for many London intellectuals is shabbier. When they have to choose between betraying their principles and betraying their friends, their principles go into the bin.
Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist and the author of You Can’t Read This Book. He blogs at spectator.co.uk/nickcohen