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As the government scrapped the second Leveson inquiry, a 1961 election handout has thrust the ex-F1 boss back to the heart of the regulation debate
In January 1961 Walter Hesketh ran from Edinburgh to London in his slippers. Pathé footage of his 82-hour journey can be found online: a monochrome snapshot of another era.
But this historical curio is not the only aspect of Hesketh’s life in 1961 to have been archived. A leaflet distributed on his behalf, as he contested the Moss Side byelection in Manchester, has resurfaced in explosive fashion.
Hesketh fought the November byelection while standing for the fascist Union Movement (UM) of Sir Oswald Mosley – an admirer of Mussolini – who was interned during the second world war for his extreme views. In a leaflet appealing for voters to back him, Hesketh pledged to “stop coloured immigration” which, he suggested, “threatens your children’s health”. The UM, which was spawned from the British Union of Fascists (BUF), was already a spent force by the 60s, when Mosley and his followers, who dreamed of creating a pan-European fascist movement, were fighting byelections in racially diverse areas as a means of extracting maximum political impact.
“Mosley’s high point was 1934, though the BUF’s members soldiered on after being released from internment,” said Graham Macklin, an assistant professor at the Centre for Research on Extremism (C-Rex), University of Oslo. “The union movement didn’t really do a great deal after the second world war. Mosley’s pro-European ideology did for the group. For a lot of the British extreme right who had followed him it was complete anathema.”
Unsurprisingly, given his outlandish views, Hesketh came last in the vote, lost his deposit, and faded into political obscurity. Mosley died in 1980, having spent his last years in Paris while a new generation of fascists formed the National Front.
Hesketh’s leaflet might have remained of interest only to historians of the far right such as Macklin except for one thing: it names Mosley’s son, Max, as its publisher.
To say this fact is toxic is an understatement.
Max Mosley, a former boss of the organisation that runs Formula One, is the bete noire of the country’s most powerful newspaper publishers. Following his 2008 high court privacy victory against the News of the World over revelations of his participation in an orgy with prostitutes, he has become a trenchant critic of several Fleet Street titles which complain that he is pursuing legal measures to gag them from reporting certain aspects of the original story.
During the 2008 case references were made to the leaflet, but it was never produced. At the time Mosley said he had no recollection of it and challenged the News of the World’s legal team to produce the document.
“I can only say categorically I do not remember it,” Mosley explained to the Observer in an email last week. “I imagine I would have read it (although, if so, I’m surprised I did nothing) but it was 57 years ago and I’ve read an awful lot since then. I would never have challenged a QC to produce it had I had the slightest suspicion it might exist. That would be very foolish. The News of the World should have disclosed it if they thought it relevant to the issues before the court.”
Well, it has been disclosed now, and at a time when the tectonic plates connecting Westminster and Fleet Street are shifting as the long-running battle over press regulation enters a new phase.
Many see Mosley as a central character in this battle. Around £4m of his family’s money has, via a trust, been channelled to Impress, the rival press regulator to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), which is funded by newspaper groups such as News UK, publisher of the Sun and the Times, and DMG Media, publisher of the Mail.
A minnow by most standards, with fewer than 100 media outlets signed up to it, Impress nevertheless remains the only regulator to be approved by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP) – the body established by royal charter to ensure that regulators are truly independent.
When asked whether he agreed that newspapers should examine the political views of someone whose money is backing a press regulator, Mosley said: “It would be different if the donor had even the slightest degree of controls. The regulator is either completely independent or it’s not – if it is, the source of its money becomes irrelevant.
“The PRP and then the high court both looked at the question in great detail and ruled I have no influence whatsoever over Impress. The Impress board are outstandingly qualified but I have never met any of them except [Walter] Merricks [its chairman] very briefly.”
Despite its limited size, its critics fear Impress’s reach.
The government had been considering bringing into force section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which would mean newspapers that are not signed up to a fully compliant regulator would have to cover the legal costs of a claimant in a libel case, even if they were to win it – a measure many saw as draconian.
Similarly, the data protection bill passing through parliament contains proposed amendments that would ensure only publishers signed up to a code put together by an “approved regulator” – of which Impress is currently the only one – would be granted special exemptions or immunity when handling data.
Its critics say both measures would give Impress considerable power. Impress’s supporters say there is nothing to stop Ipso from becoming a similarly approved regulator. There is little common ground to be found between either side.
The antecedents of the current row over press regulation can be traced back to 2012 when David Cameron pledged action following the phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World. At the time Cameron said the test should be “not ‘do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get?’ It’s ‘are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process?’ That’s what the test is.”
The first phase of the test – an examination into the culture, practices and ethics of the press – concluded with the publication of a 1,987-page report by a senior judge, Sir Brian Leveson, that recommended a new system of regulation.
A second phase, a public inquiry examining the relationship between the press, the police and politicians, known as Leveson 2, with powers to compel witnesses to attend court and to demand documents, was scrapped by the government on Thursday, just as the furore surrounding Mosley’s historical far-right links was raging.
Explaining the climbdown, and its related decision not to introduce section 40, the culture secretary Matthew Hancock suggested that newspapers had cleaned up their act and that their plunging circulations meant “the world had changed” since 2012.
But some see an unsettling choreography in the timing of the Mosley story and the government’s announcement.
That it was the Mail – a paper which ran a story in 1934 headlined “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” praising Oswald Mosley for his “sound common sense” – that led the attack on his son, unearthing the Hesketh leaflet and highlighting Mosley junior’s enthusiastic attendance at a number of violent far-right demonstrations, is an irony not lost on Jonathan Heawood, CEO of Impress.
“There was a clear political context to what’s happened over the last few days and it’s disappointing that politicians are interfering in press regulation once again,” Heawood said.
He added: “A lot of people have said the Leveson framework is somehow about the past, not the future. But that’s nonsense. Most of our members are digital-first publications.”
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader who has received more than £500,000 in donations from Mosley and has been effusive in his praise for the millionaire, a source of embarrassment to many in his own party, also accused the government of capitulating to the powerful newspaper groups which, he said, had been “lobbying hard” for Leveson 2 to be scrapped.
They were lobbying from a position of strength. A government threatening to implode under the pressures of delivering Brexit to the nation is desperate to keep its allies in the press on side.
But despite the government’s climbdown the internecine war over press regulation appears far from over. In the longer term, much may depend on which way the political wind blows. Labour, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn recently warned that “change was coming” for the “media barons”, made implementing Leveson 2 a manifesto commitment at the last election.
In the shorter term, a judicial review of the decision to ditch Leveson 2 seems inevitable. Watson, too, has hinted that he believes further legal battles lie ahead. In a speech in parliament on Thursday he asked Hancock: “If it is revealed that the criminality that took place at the News of the World extended to other newspapers, will he reconsider his position [to ditch Leveson 2]?”
The Observer understands that a series of civil claims against at least one major newspaper publisher are likely to end up in court this autumn. This would be extremely significant. Previous civil cases have been settled out of court, meaning little light has been shed on what exactly happened at those newspapers alleged to have engaged in phone hacking.
As one person complained in an excoriating letter to Hancock and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, last week, in which they said that they “fundamentally disagreed” with the decision to scrap the second part of the inquiry: “In neither part one nor the trials have there been answers to ‘who did what to whom?’”
The name of that person? Sir Brian Leveson.
Additional research Ben Gartside
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