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Why I am with Cameron on Leveson

By Angela Harbutt
November 30th, 2012 at 8:00 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Media

So here we have it – a tussle about the balance of power between the politicians and the press (neither of which have exactly high trustworthy ratings right now). And a tussle between the Coalition leader and the deputy leader (ditto). Disappointingly, (as a liberal) I find myself agreeing with Cameron on this one . Odd to see the leader of the Conservative party defending the very foundations of liberalism, whilst the leader of the liberals seems to stand firmly in the camp of those wishing to extinguish the freedom of the press. How have we arrived at this place?

On the face of it, with one or two exceptions I have noticed,  I am in the minority within the Lib Dems. Comments such as “If we never achieve ANYTHING else whilst in Government, being there on the day we stopped people like Murdoch being able to hurt again, will be worth it.” …….” I thought we’d all be delighted by the outcome? The press have always disliked us and bullied us” echo a sentiment I have heard more than once today.

Elsewhere the Lib Dem view seems to be that we must impose restraints on the press “for the victims”.

The anti-Murdoch response from the Lib Dems was predictable I suppose. The party does seem to have adopted a general stance, covering many issues, that runs along the line “if we don’t agree with something it should be banned” regardless of the underlying merit (or lack thereof) of the specific policy in question.  And as despicable as phone hacking undoubtedly is, we should not have a “victims  veto” (h/t Mick Hume from Spiked!), where the victims determine the punishment. Bleak days indeed where tribal hatred or popularity contests can veer us so far off course.

This is a time for calm, clear thinking. Not crowd-pleasing gestures to the “victims”, nor relishing our moment to get one over a press that ignored us. We must be very clear what we are sleep-walking our way into.

Leveson is proposing this Government regulate the press – and our “liberal” leader appears to be aiding and abetting this. Any movement towards statutory regulation (which is exactly what statutory “underpinning” is) of the free press is wrong on every level, plain and simple. Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it will, as sure as night follows day, expand them later. Once you open that door – even by an inch- you will never shut it. We have seen with every other piece of legislation , when a door is opened, it will only widen.

Ever thought anti-terrorism laws were intended to evict a heckler from a party conference? No one did – that is the point. I seriously struggle to understand the naivety (because I must believe this is not simple opportunism) of Nick Clegg. Another apology in waiting – but this time there can be no forgiveness. No excuses. Nick may have acquired short term notoriety for reneging on students fees. Small beer to his legacy – the destruction of the fourth estate and abandonment of liberalism.

The reason for Leveson’s recommendation to move to state regulation is because “self regulation of the press has not worked”.

[Never mind that most of the complaints were about criminal activities that, had the state spent more time worrying about doing its job properly,  the police would be less corruptable and politicians less gullable.  The decay of the the moral fibre of our so-called public servants is, and always has been the real issue here.]

In his speech in the House of Commons, Nick said :

“… when I gave my own evidence to the Inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all of the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should. But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that”

Well Nick, try harder. Self regulation has clearly not worked for the press, indeed it does look like the PCC was part of the problem. But self regulation can and does work. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry in the United Kingdom. It is a non-statutory organisation (so it can’t cannot interpret or enforce legislation) but has a code of advertising which broadly reflects legislation in many instances. The ASA is not funded by the British Government, but by a levy on the advertising industry. It is fast-acting, even-handed, accessible and cheap to use.  Get off your backside and go make it happen. What is so pressing in your diary that you can’t just go find good models of self regulation, and make a new improved PCC mark2 work?

Today I hang my head in shame. The liberal leader’s stance on this is not just embarrassing – its inexcusable.

The dangers of the Leveson proposal are all too evident. Indeed the more one considers the Leveson ideas the more you scratch your head and ask how did we arrive here; how do they imagine it is going to work; and where will it all end?

Who exactly, selects the members who might sit on the regulator “independent of industry or politicians”? Talk of an arms-length body is all well and good – but whoever selects the members defines the nature of the organisation.

What happens when one, or more, elements of the press say no to the cowing of the press? I am not a reader of the Spectator. I was pointed to yesterday’s editorial and I may well sign up today. Why? Read this

“The idea of benign ‘statutory regulation’ was advocated by MPs in 1952 and The Spectator vigorously opposed it then, too. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’

That is what The Spectator will now do. If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

So what happens if others follow the Spectator’s spectaculary bold and brilliant stance? Will the face-off end up in editors and journalists refusing to be cowed? Refuse to pay fines? Challenge the regulation ? Go to prison ? If this is where we are heading then I am signing up to the fight. And I am firmly on the side of the Spectator. And if that means prison so be it.

And how do you define which organisations/ titles are required to adhere to the “voluntary-statutory” regulator ? The Daily & Sunday Express, Scottish Daily & Sunday Express, Daily & Sunday Star and others are currently exempt from PCC rulings – because they have opted out.  How do you deal with them ?

And whilst I am on the “practicalities” Leveson has virtually ignored on-line blogs and news sites. As they grow, will we see calls for sites such as Britain’s best-read political website, Guido Fawkes or Spiked! rolled into the regulators sphere of control? Guido Fawkes, is domiciled in Ireland – does Spiked have to do likewise? Will blogs such as this one ultimately come under the inspection of a press regulator?

Ok, I am now getting far ahead of where we are today. Many will say that this will never happen. But whichever way you look at this you see opportunities for regulatory creep and political interference. Do we really trust politicians to show restraint? History says we must not.  And the suggestion of a “First Amendment style” protection of the freedom of the press enshrined in the statute currently is a meaningless token gesture.  What will it realistically offer that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights” does not already provide? You know the answer.

We all have sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the print press. We have just as much sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the BBC. Why treat the organisations so differently if there are no agendas or scores to settle?

As a party that has fought id cards, detention without trial, state surveillance and rendition, so must we fight the gagging, taming or cowing of the free press. Wrong-doing of the press must be dealt with through the courts, but we cannot allow a handful of political careerists and bitter celebs, to appoint themselves judge and jury.  We will fight the key Leveson proposal to regulate the press with all our might. We will fight the demands  to rush to legislation. Nothing good came out too much speed. Reflect Nick. Please.

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Minimum pricing – policy based evidence

By Guest
November 28th, 2012 at 9:42 pm | No Comments | Posted in BBC, health, pseudo science

Based on the output of the English media, one could be forgiven for not having noticed that Scottish ministers appear to have shelved minimum alcohol pricing ostensibly due to legal challenges. It will be unfortunate if minimum pricing is shelved solely on the basis of illegality because the lessons to be learned from the attempts to justify it via policy based evidence will then once again go unheeded.

We hear much talk of evidence based public health policy these days but what we actually get is “evidence” concocted to suit policy. The public health industry seems utterly incapable of delivering honest, objective, scientific evidence and the media contributes to the problem through lazy uncritical reporting combined with establishment bias. This was typified by the BBCs response to being caught out making wild claims about the number of lives minimum pricing would “save” amongst pensioners.  Rather than investigate the obviously questionable reliability of its source, the BBC simply accepted a lower but no more credible number.

The BBCs source was The University of Sheffield, which has now received involuntary taxpayer funding from two governments and a public broadcaster. On each occasion the motive has been the gathering of policy based evidence and it appears that neither the politicians nor the media appear to care how dubious the quality of that evidence is provided that it suits their purpose.

Petr Skrabanek in his 1994 work The Death of Humane Medicine cited Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir from 1953 when making a case against the “science” that underpins public health. He wrote that it “accepts evidence not according to its quality but according to its conformity with a foregone conclusion”. It seems that his wise observations have been ignored because the ersatz science that provides the “evidence” for policy interventions is nowadays more prevalent than ever. The University of Sheffield study provides a classic  example of this anti-science in which every supportive scrap of data, however poor in quality  is treated as “conclusive” or adding to a “growing body of evidence” and every contradictory piece as “flawed”, “controversial” or “in need of further research”.  Evidence at odds with the authors’ predetermined conclusions is often simply ignored. Take for example evidence statement 13:

“There is consistent evidence to suggest that alcohol consumption is associated with substantially increased risks of all-cause mortality even in people drinking lower than recommended limits, and especially among younger people. High levels of alcohol consumption have detrimental effects. The evidence is more equivocal, however, where it relates to establishing cut-off points for lower risk versus harmful levels of consumption. There is an ongoing controversy as to whether or not there are beneficial (cardio-protective) effects at low levels of alcohol consumption.”

This statement is an extremely misleading interpretation of the available evidence. There is no excuse for this form of words appearing in a document paid for by public funds and intended to guide politicians who are not versed in the subtleties of public health disingenuity. Hiding behind theoretical and contestable risk factors, the authors peddle the scientifically improbable but politically powerful concept of “no safe level” whilst ignoring a large body of evidence showing teetotallers to have lower life expectancy than moderate drinkers.  I could write extensively about the “controversy” they refer to but Christopher Snowdon already covered it in some detail.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated example in a production that goes to extraordinary lengths to provide policy based evidence.  The other “evidence” statements display a similar lack of objectivity and, despite using the Household Survey data provided by the ONS as a basis for much of their modelling, the authors ignore it when considering consumption at the population level.  They open their section on areas for possible future research (and of course more taxpayer funding) with the typically convoluted sentence:

Given the trends in consumption over the past ten years it is unlikely that a ‘do nothing’ policy would result in no change to the consumption of alcohol in the population.

It is hard to tell, but I think that they are trying to say that consumption is trending up so government MUST act. This is a remarkably inept statement to make in the middle of a trend that, according to the ONS has seen household consumption decline by 20% in a decade without any significant government intervention.

I find it hard to understand why politicians continue to pay homage to what Skrabanek described as healthism despite the huge flaws in the “evidence” that underpins it being repeatedly exposed. Perhaps Skrabanek gives some insight into the reasons when he writes:

Politicians find the facile rhetoric of healthism rewarding. It increases their popularity at no cost, and it enhances their power to control the population. It meets no resistance from the opposition, who promise to improve the ‘health of the nation’ even more.

Robin Fox, former editor of The Lancet describes Skrabanek as a “humorous man of immense culture and learning” in the Preface to The Death of Humane Medicine and despite not completely agreeing with Skrabanek’s pessimism, goes on to add that he “speaks many truths that we should heed”. I cannot help but feel that the world would be a better place if politicians, journalists and others did heed the words of this humorous, cultured medical man above the strident clamour of the health zealots. After all, without aggressive healthism there would be no need to insult our intelligence with pseudo-scientific policy based evidence and I sincerely doubt that the public would bemoan redundancies amongst the social “scientists”, non-practicing medics and psychologists who contribute to its socially divisive message. I doubt that these commenters on the BBC’s umpteenth plug for minimum pricing would mind at all:

For anyone who empathizes with Bauer and /or who is interested in a more liberal and less miserable future I recommend reading Skrabanek’s book which can be downloaded for free here.

By Chris Oakley. Chris’ previous posts on Liberal Vision include:  Alcohol is Old News – Minimum Pricing for Digestives is the “Next Logical Step” , Soviet Style Alcohol Suppression Campaign Called for By Public Health Activists , Alcohol Taxation: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth Lies, damn lies, statistics &…

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