Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary Says the Press is Bound by the Law: Has She Been Paying Any Attention?

Days after four more current national newspaper editors were accused of having acted unlawfully, the party’s media spokesperson rules out future action on press accountability

Thangam Debbonaire, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport speaking at the 2024. Photo: Matt Crossick/Empics/Alamy Live News

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

In an interview in The House, the magazine for the Westminster bubble, Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow culture secretary and thus its spokesperson on media affairs was asked about whether Labour’s back-pedalling on promises. She denied it indignantly. Labour, she said, had not watered down its aims “in any way, shape or form”. 

Moments later she was asked to confirm that Labour would not “seek to revive the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry” (which was cancelled by the Tories in 2018 and which was supposed to investigate criminality in the media). And she replied “Yes”. 

Part two of the Leveson Inquiry was Labour policy. It was Labour policy when the terms of reference were written in 2011 and opposing its cancellation was Labour policy in 2018. Nor can it be written off as a Corbyn thing; it was very much a Miliband thing (he called it “a question of morality”), and Ed Miliband is to this day a colleague of Debbonaire’s on the Labour front bench. Abandoning part two is back-pedalling; it is not watering down it is a U-turn. 


Getting Away with Murder? What Harry’s Win Against the Mirror Means for Murdoch and the Mail

The judgment of Justice Fancourt establishes a clear link between the ‘criminal media nexus’ of corrupt cops, journalists and the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Daniel Morgan to feature in trials next year

But what Debbonaire said next was even more revealing and even more damning: “We have to make sure that, no matter what, we do protect our free press. When I say “no matter what’, I don’t mean: they’re not allowed to break the law, they’re not allowed to harass people – that’s already a criminal offence. So there are plenty of things that are covered by criminal law.”

Driving her point home, she added: “There is already media regulation, there is already the criminal and civil law. We don’t have plans to do anything, any new legislation in that area, no.”

In case it is not obvious, she is repeating here the opinions of the national newspaper industry. This is exactly what the people who run the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian, the Mirror and the Express would say. But the “free press” she speaks of is almost entirely the captive of powerful corporations and billionaires who exploit it for their political and commercial ends without regard for the rights and freedoms of the rest of us. 

There is no mention here of protecting the public. Debbonaire doesn’t appear to care about a public discourse persistently poisoned by the lies of the Mail and the Sun, or about the ordinary people, including many from minorities, who are abused and persecuted by these papers. 


And the timing is appalling for Debbonaire. Just days before this interview appeared it was revealed that four current national newspaper editors are among dozens of journalists named in claims against the Mail papers as having engaged in unlawful information gathering. 

To put that another way, Tony Gallagher (who today, right now, is editor of the Times of London), Ben Taylor (Sunday Times), Victoria Newton (Sun) and David Dillon (Mail on Sunday) stand accused of having broken the law, and not by just anyone but by a group of people including Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Sir Simon Hughes, Prince Harry and Elton John. 

It should be noted that one other current editor – Gary Jones of the Express papers – has already been named by a civil court judge in a formal judgment (not a claim) as having persistently employed unlawful means in pursuit of stories. He remains in post, his employers clearly indifferent to his record of lawbreaking. 

The claims against the Mail group are, it should be stressed, “trenchantly” denied, but they lend support to something of which Debbonaire should be aware: that she is defending the indefensible and that the arguments she repeats about protecting a free press are nothing better than the prevarications of an industry permeated by serial lawbreakers. 

The End of the Mail’s Useful Legend? Doreen Lawrence Accuses Newspaper of Spying on Her

The case may shatter the Mail’s claims about its role in achieving justice for Stephen Lawrence, writes Brian Cathcart

And where does this leave the victims of press abuse, who for the Labour Party should surely be the priority? Baroness Lawrence asserts that the Mail hacked her mobile phone, tapped her landline, unlawfully accessed her personal records and bought information about her family from police officers (again, “trenchantly” denied) and that it did all this even as it publicly pretended to be her friend. She is a Labour peer: if she and Debbonaire bump into each other at Westminster – maybe they should talk. 


The picture we now have of press conduct in the recent past is nightmarish, and though Debbonaire’s friends in the “free press” refuse to report it honestly to their readers, she of all people should know the history. 

Thanks to 17 years of civil litigation it is now clear that unlawful information gathering was rampant – routine – across as much as two decades at the News of the World, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People. Though it has not been admitted by the Sun, that paper is currently paying out huge sums rather than go to court and contest the claims, so you may draw your own conclusion from that. 

Recent revelations emerging from the litigation are astonishing. Murdoch papers, whose phone hacking was first exposed in 2006, continued hacking until at least 2011 – actually during the Leveson Inquiry. And more, some of that hacking shows every sign of having been carried out, not for the purpose of acquiring news stories, but to advance the commercial and political interests interests of the Murdoch empire

‘Reckless to the Point of Madness’: How the Murdoch Empire Hacked British Politics

Journalist Nick Davies talks to Alan Rusbridger and Lionel Barber in Prospect magazine’s ‘Media Confidential’ podcast about the new revelations from the settlement by News Group Newspapers

Everything suggests, in fact, that Thangam Debbonaire, had she been doing the job in 2010 or 2011 that she is doing now, would have been a top target of phone hacking by the “free press”. 

She tells The House she considers the current law adequate to deal with this. For people such as former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable it has taken more than 13 years for the civil courts just to start catching up, and – it can’t be stressed enough – our criminal laws have been all but useless in bringing the instigators to account. If Debbonaire was hacked, would she be content with this? Again, a chat with Vince Cable might be instructive.    

The claims against the Mail group (which, to repeat, are “trenchantly” denied) give all of this a further dimension of potentially huge significance. Bear in mind that those claims describe the use of many of the same private investigators who have already been found to have routinely employed unlawful methods for other papers, while among the journalists named are a number who have already been declared by judges to have acted unlawfully when working for other papers.

If the claims succeed – and we will not know the outcome for a couple of years – it will confirm among many other things what we have seen in the case of Gary Jones, which is that in the internal culture of today’s “free press” it is no block to promotion to have been involved in illegal activities. 


Time for Truth: Calls Grow for Police Probe into Piers Morgan and Mirror Editors

A prominent lawyer, hacking victim and an ex-police officer are joining Prince Harry in demanding police action into Mirror Group crimes and alleged lies to the Leveson Inquiry


A final point: Debbonaire says that “there is already media regulation”. That may be true of broadcasting – the point is arguable these days – but as she should know, it is emphatically not true when it comes to the “free press”. 

The so-called regulator of the national press, IPSO, calls itself a self-regulator but is, in reality, a sham. It upholds a pitifully small percentage of complaints against its members; it is by its own admission powerless to address racism and religious discrimination by its members; it has no powers of investigation or sanction, and to cap it all, so far from being independent it is actually chaired by a politician – Lord Faulks, a former Tory minister

Once upon a time, not only under Jeremy Corbyn but before him under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party recognised all this. It backed the Leveson recommendations on independent, effective regulation and it also wanted Leveson part two because both of these were measures that would protect not only the public, including vulnerable people and groups who are often subjected to abuse, but also decent journalism.   

So when Debbonaire denies that Labour has watered down its aims she is not just wrong; she is reversing the party’s policies by choosing to take the side of press billionaires against ordinary people. It follows that if she becomes culture secretary after the general election, nothing – nothing at all –  will be done to restrain the most destructive power at work in British society today. 

So if you live in Bristol Central, her constituency, I would humbly ask you to consider giving your vote to somebody else. And if you are a Labour Party member anywhere in the country, please be aware of the fate to which your party’s spokesperson seems prepared to condemn us all.

Written by

This article was filed under