Michelle Mone's PPE profits and Michael Matheson's iPad expenses bill show why press freedom is vital – John McLellan

Renewed calls for tighter controls on the media following Prince Harry’s phone hacking court victory must be resisted if the rich and powerful are to be held to account

It was what should be known as the Matheson defence. “I didn’t want the press intrusion for my family,” whined former lingerie tycoon Michelle Mone to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday. “My family have been through hell in the media.”

Like SNP Health Secretary Michael Matheson, rumbled by the Daily Telegraph for trying to get the taxpayer to foot his £11,000 iPad holiday roaming charges, using fear of media intrusion is a pitiful deflection from the real allegation, the use, or abuse, of public funds, but it fools nobody, especially from someone who has played the publicity game throughout her career. At least Baroness Mone (of Mayfair… classy) and her businessman husband Doug Barrowman didn’t try to win sympathy by blubbering.

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Even David Cameron’s decision to ennoble her in 2015 was, I understand, partly due to influential media friends, an appointment which took more than a few Scottish Conservatives by surprise. If, as Baroness Mone now says, she is “ashamed of being a Conservative peer”, then the feeling up here was, with no exceptions I can think of, entirely mutual, and no wonder Scottish party chairman Craig Hoy wasn’t keen to talk about her elevation when asked last week.

Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, were interviewed on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg (Picture: BBC/Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg/PA Wire)Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, were interviewed on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg (Picture: BBC/Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg/PA Wire)
Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, were interviewed on the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg (Picture: BBC/Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg/PA Wire)

But let’s be fair to her and Mr Barrowman. It is indeed the press’s fault that their links to the company PPE Medpro have been exposed, that the public now knows the firm was paid £202 million for protective medical clothing at the height of the pandemic with a 30 per cent mark-up, that protective gowns were rejected for not meeting the required standard (which they deny), and that some £29m made its way into a trust from which her family are the beneficiaries. “We've only done one thing, which was lie to the press to say we weren't involved," she said, presumably in the expectation that a £60m scrape, even if there was no dispute about quality, at a time of dire national emergency was something the public would accept as fair exchange for a few calls to contacts in the Far East rag trade. God bless your selflessness, Baroness.

The link between PPE Medpro and the Baroness was made by a Guardian newspaper investigation, and aggressively denied by her lawyers, but even that wasn’t her fault: the Cabinet Office told us we didn’t have to declare an interest to the House of Lords, we were advised to deny the connection with the company, and then the biggest laugh of the lot, we were not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. To her credit, Laura Kuenssberg pointed out that’s precisely what they’d attempted.

I suspect if Mr Matheson had £29m salted away in a family trust he might have been less inclined to let taxpayers fund his sons’ holiday football-watching bill, but these stories are just two strong examples of the press holding people in powerful positions to account. Last week, the Sunday Mail’s John Ferguson won the British Journalism Awards politics prize for his stories on the cover-up and subsequent lies about the SNP’s membership figures which led to resignation of party chief executive Peter Murrell. Gabriel Pogrund of the Sunday Times was crowned Journalist of the Year for his work in exposing ex-BBC chairman Richard Sharp’s role in securing loan guarantees for Boris Johnson, leading to Mr Sharp’s resignation, and bullying allegations against government chief whip Sir Gavin Williamson which forced him out.

Such stories are what gets journalists up in the morning, but in the last week focus has once again turned to the dark side of the past, with Prince Harry’s court victory over what was Mirror Group, particularly stories before 2009 about his relationship with ex-girlfriend Chelsy Davey which the judge found were based on hacked phone messages. Unsurprisingly, it has reignited calls for tighter, state-linked, press regulation, notably from ex-Labour communications chief and, ironically, former Daily Mirror political editor Alastair Campbell, who argued for the activation of a law in which any publication not subject to an officially recognised regulator could face punitive costs if sued in the English courts, win or lose.

These rules, contained in Section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act, were part of the response to the 2012 Leveson inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal, also uncovered by The Guardian. Section 40 has never been triggered and is due to be repealed in the Media Bill now going through parliament, but there could yet be amendments in the House of Lords to find other ways to punish publishers refusing to join an official regulator approved by parliamentary process. Because it regulates itself, if Baroness Mone was able to sue The Guardian under Section 40, the paper would still have to pay her costs even if it won. That’s how mad it is.

The thrust of the case for tighter press regulation seems to be that senior Mirror Group figures when phone hacking happened still have high-profile roles, like ex-Mirror editor Piers Morgan whose “Uncensored” show runs on Talk TV ─ owned by News Corp, the parent company of Sun and Times publisher News UK. If lessons were learnt, such people would be working in a charity shop, seems to be the gist of it. “The worst elements of the press have contributed to the damage done and, contrary to their claims, the culture has not fundamentally changed since Leveson,” claimed Campbell who, as someone implicated in making the case for the Iraq War, is not the most reliable witness when it comes to truth or standards.

But maybe there is some truth in what he says. Privacy law might be tougher and the regulator Ipso far more stringent than the old Press Complaints Commission, but the desire to push boundaries, to cock a snook at authority, to scrutinise the rich and powerful, is still there. And that’s exactly as it should be.



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